In today's competitive marketplace, designers are faced with the responsibility of creating new and innovative products that will recreate or capture their market. But, how do they go about proactively developing a creative and innovative design?

Our clients are often surprised by our answer to this question. They commonly believe that designers derive new and innovative designs solely from their own creative inspiration. But our research shows that the most innovative designs are those that are created by designers when driven by customer data.

Customer Data Drives Innovation

Every so often, a designer does come up with a truly inspired, creative idea completely on their own. But designers often believe that this is the norm, not the exception.

Many designers understand that the need for customer input is invaluable, but they perceive the process to be too costly. Without the necessary customer involvement, designers end up developing products based on what designers believe customers need, rather than what they actually need. The resulting design becomes a solution looking for a problem.

Karen Holtzblatt, Co-Founder of InContext Enterprises, agrees that customer data drives innovation and that the most innovative solutions come from involving the customers. She believes that the most reliable road to creativity is when an innovator gathers customer data and observes problems that need fixing.

Karen says there are many real-life examples: Thomas Edison invented the light bulb when he'd observed people struggling by candlelight. WordPerfect was developed when the creators asked for feedback from their primary customers, office secretaries. She points out that products are only innovative if they're solving a real problem for customers.

Success Stories: Customer-Focused Design

eBay's web site is a prime example of innovation at work. Pierre Omidyar, eBay's founder, came up with the idea of an online auction site by recognizing a specific problem his wife (then girlfriend) was facing — she needed a venue to collect and trade Pez dispensers. In the course of understanding his wife's predicament, Pierre came up with the idea of an online auction house.

Look at eBay today. Along with selling Pez dispensers, the site sells any item a person could possibly want to buy. Pierre didn't come up with this highly profitable idea "out of thin air". Instead, he recognized a problem, had a vision, and most importantly, gathered constant feedback from customers throughout the design process. eBay's innovation didn't stop at the launch of the site. They constantly collect feedback from customers, helping them add dozens of new and innovative services and features every year.

At User Interface Engineering, we see many examples of customer data leading to innovation. For example, SAP asked us to visit some of their customers to observe how they used the software. When we visited these customers on-site, we observed that all of the companies had the same problem. After the SAP system was installed, SAP's customers needed to train their employees on the product. Every SAP customer we visited asked the same question: are we really the first company that has needed training on this application?

After they identified the problem, SAP identified their customer's training needs and created several innovative training solutions for their customers. Because they based the training on the work already done by their customers, this innovation was very easy to implement and cost almost nothing. But SAP would have never known there was a problem without talking to their customers.

Contextual Inquiry: A Technique for Practicing Customer-Driven Design

The exciting thing is that any design team can create innovative products if they learn some simple techniques. Designers with limited resources can easily implement most of these techniques on a small budget.

One technique we like to use to create innovative designs is Contextual Inquiry. Contextual Inquiry immerses product designers in actual customer data by having designers observe the work of users in their natural environment. Design teams can quickly identify specific problems and needs of their customers, One advantage of this technique is that it provides a framework for designers to synthesize the customer data they collect and use it to produce creative products.

No matter what techniques teams use to collect data, the important thing is that they believe that innovation can be accomplished through a methodical, proactive process. The key for success in creating this process is to make sure it is driven by data. •

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