This article is adapted from a section of Econsultancy’s Innovation Best Practice Guide, written by Steffan Aquarone. The guide presents a set of simple, practical ideas, and Aquarone takes the word ‘innovation’ itself to mean ‘finding ways of doing things differently’..

The guide was written for a wide range of audiences, not just people who think they’re innovative or digital. And though the report was published back in 2017, innovation is a topic that has been around for some two hundred years. The author himself makes this point:

“I fear many people assume that nothing that was invented before the web could possibly be relevant to the world as it stands today. But people themselves haven’t changed that much – and the ways in which organisations try to harness the elusive qualities of creativity, enquiry and radical thinking from their people are struggles that have gone on long before words like ‘disruption’, ‘Uberisation’ or ‘agile’ made it into the management-speak lexicon.”

This article proposes an approach to innovation that requires no prior knowledge, and assumes you, someone in your team or someone from the outside will be taking a lead on a project that might run for several months or more, whose sole focus will be the development of the best possible result for your customers (or potential customers, audiences, markets or service users). It focuses heavily on the research, the communication and the task of finding out what people want, and it stops short of defining the business case or taking the idea to the next step of prototyping, both of which will vary depending on the sector.

In essence, it’s about how to have good ideas by asking the right questions.

See Econsultancy’s full guide to innovation for sections on the business case, key considerations, next steps, and flawed assumptions to avoid.

Step 1: Get your opinions out of your heads

When it comes to real research into what people want, it doesn’t help to be carrying personal biases. Even outsiders come with pre-judged opinions about the market, the company’s current brand or products. Get them written down. Clean your mind by archiving your thoughts. Ask everyone on the team to do it as well, and then file it all carefully away until you’ve reached at least step 8. Some biases will be impossible to remove, so call them out – be aware of them.

Step 2: Read, read, read

Congratulations on already having chosen to read about innovation! But how much more could you find out from what other people have done before you even get started?

It might not be the fun, post-it note part of the process, but familiarising yourself with all the internal documents that are relevant to current or past products, trawling through strategy documents and KPI reports and tuning in to some of the leading commentators in your market will all help enrich your picture of the context in which you’re operating.

Step 3: Talk to people who have something at stake

Sometimes they’re called ‘stakeholders’, and they’re incredibly important if your project is going to learn from what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in the past.

It’s amazing how few people have been listened to in most organisations. Especially people in more junior positions.

It’s very important to have your wits about you and adjust for attitude. In most organisations, the more senior people are, often the more sure they are. But really good CEOs are ready to admit they’re not absolutely sure at all about anything.

Finding the right people to talk to is important, so consider taking a two-pronged approach.

The first, naturally, should consider a selection of those currently involved in the area of the business the innovation affects. The second is self-selective – finding and talking to people who have expressed an interest in the project, which is usually an indication that they have something to say. A simple internal survey of all staff should suffice, as well as giving a snapshot of the internal perspective on the way things are.

Step 4: Communicate back

Avoid your project being seen as a stealthy cost-reduction exercise by playing back the results of your findings frequently. Even for public surveys, extending the offer of seeing the full results when they’re complete is a compelling reason for people to give you their (accurate) contact details.

Step 5: Try other products

Marketing brochures can’t tell you what the reality is like for customers, and in a world that’s driven by customer experience, actually having first-hand experience of what your competitors are doing at the moment is crucial.

This isn’t just about buying the competitor’s product. It’s about living with it for a week and seeing how and whether it changes your life. Startups can be the worst for taking the time to try other products – but it’s from these experiences that inspiration often comes. Not just competitor products, but any products that have aspects that are relevant to what you’re trying to do – features, target market and customer profiles.

Step 6: Get to know the ecosystem

You might not have the budget to employ hundreds of software engineers. If not, you could look for inspiration from current providers, or meet with and explore opportunities with potential partners. They might well have the tools and the insights to help expand your frame of reference, and let you work out what might be possible.

Step 7: Talk to some customers

Making things that people don’t yet know they want requires more than just subjective opinion and the only reliable way to work out what people want is to do research.

Research could involve audience profiling – age, gender, lifestyle and more. There may well be research in your sector or even persona modelling within your business that describes your target customers and some of their preferences to help paint a picture. Once you know more about your audience you can start to find out where they are – which online communities they’re part of and how they choose their sources of information. This will be priceless when you begin to think about how to reach them.

Testing either your prototypes or beta software with real-world users needn’t be the sole preserve of large corporations or projects with huge budgets.

Leaving the organisation and venturing into the big scary real world outside has some huge benefits. Testing with real users – laypeople who don’t know your organisation’s internal priorities – can expose issues, challenge assumptions and validate the product you’re making at an early stage. And all you need to organise your own focus group is some contact data, a room and the following checklist elements.

7.1. A focus group check list

Who? Audience members who represent your personas as closely as possible.

How many people? In user experience testing, a group as small as five can give excellent results, and it’s a case of rapidly diminishing returns as you add more participants.

How many times should we test? As many as you can. It’s better to run many small tests than a large one, you’ll get better feedback with each iteration of your project.

What kind of evidence do we record? Mainly qualitative evidence. Watch what users are doing and ask them questions. You could also record quantitative scores, for example ‘how likely are you to recommend or try this product?’ or ‘did your feelings about our brand change as a result of watching?’

Should we record users? Recording snippets of video or audio isn’t required, but can be really useful later on to help persuade key stakeholders in the business.

Use an online form – it can be structured like a questionnaire, ensuring you don’t miss things out and that the feedback is uniformly structured across test subjects.

Watch what people do rather than what they say. Many users will say ‘Yeah, that was okay’ when in fact they had a slightly negative reaction that they feel bad about sharing.

7.2. The curse of knowledge

The curse of knowledge is another cognitive bias. Simply put, once you know something you can’t un-know it.

In user experience circles, the curse of knowledge can be described as follows: you’re an expert in the story, product, brand or visual world you’ve created, so you can no longer see if it conveys the right meaning to a lay person. You’ve forgotten all the stuff you know compared to the audience.

If you’re not careful, the more developed your idea becomes, the harder it is for you to approach products like a user.

For this reason alone, user testing is a vital step in any product design process, to gain an objective assessment of the product by laypeople who more accurately represent your real users.

Step 8: Look for as many reasons as possible why it won’t work

Mike Baxter, Director at Goal Atlas, offers some advice in Econsultancy’s 2017 innovation guide:

“If we start thinking about an innovation framework in terms of a risk mitigation framework, things start to fall into place quite nicely, because we can think of a process that runs from ideation all the way through to production. And you can put in place various tools and processes to try to check that the idea is good before you start thinking about how you might try to manufacture it or create it at scale.

“That’s when you get into the more traditional product development models which are stage-gate models. You do a chunk of design work or development work, you ‘gate’ it in some way, you check that you’re on track and then you only try to keep going if you are.

“The more important thing about that process isn’t embodiment (knowing the functions but not necessarily component form) or detail (towards scale production). The key that applies universally is the identification of needs, discussion of the criteria that tells you you’ve met those needs and then the concept design that should explore a whole host of different ways of delivering a service to satisfy those needs. And of course, at each of those stages you should be reducing the risk.”

Step 9: Rinse and repeat

Now you’ve been through all the stages – you’ve cleared your mind, read, talked to people, presented back, eaten various brands of dog food, talked to customers, tried to think of reasons not to carry on, and despite all of this, someone’s agreed to give you some money.

So far so good – so why change what’s working?

The simple answer to what to do next is: rinse and repeat. But this time you’ll be making stuff and putting it into people’s hands, not just asking them for their opinions. Each time you pass through the cycle, try to think about the next step that will give further validation to your assumptions, to get you closer to realising your vision, and thereby reducing the risk of failure.

Econsultancy is a learning organisation that helps upskill teams in digital marketing and ecommerce through benchmarking and training. Find out more about our tailored learning academies.

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