• Ujwal Arkalgud

Our obsession with the consumer verbatim kills front-end innovation

Why is the research industry still stuck in interview-based methods when it comes to identifying opportunities at the front end of innovation? It’s because of two common needs we tend to have as human beings:

  1. We believe something less if we haven’t seen it first hand. The problem with this is that we also believe something way out of proportion when we do see it first hand.

  2. Our mind plays tricks on us and leaves us with the belief that what we saw is representative of a greater truth.We don’t like change — new methods require us to re-educate ourselves especially so we are able to easily articulate the value of the work up the management chain.

These two common problems are why a majority of innovations never have the slightest chance of ‘making it’. When demand spaces are identified through a handful of interviews and co-creation sessions, they end up either misidentifying opportunities or misrepresenting the relative value of one opportunity space over the other.

Here’s a real example of one such situation:

We met with a major cosmetics brand that was about to launch a line of “natural” products without fully understanding the hidden meanings that were behind the word “natural” in culture. They had already invested eighteen months of R&D and tons of consumer research — focus groups, interviews, co-creation sessions etc. The initiative itself would have cost them at least tens of millions to implement.

After just five days of research, we had to tell the client that they needed a pivot in their direction because the consumer’s perception of “natural” wasn’t entirely in line with the definition they had landed on.

The consumer no longer trusted any so-called “natural” claims. It had been overdone by the industry already. It was no longer a demand space with growth potential.The only opportunity within natural that was growing was in the area of biologically active ingredients (derived from nature). Interestingly, the overall outcome didn’t need to be “natural” if such ingredients made their way into the product line.

Consumer verbatim kills innovation.

We see this type of scenario so much that we’re growing increasingly convinced of the main culprit — it’s research methods that just aren’t right for the task of identifying and quantifying demand spaces. There’s a need to draw a line in the sand and make a distinction between research done to identify revenue opportunities vs. research done to design products. They’re two different types of projects and require very different approaches. The former no longer requires interaction with the consumer. In fact, in the world of big online data, we’re better off not interacting with the consumer but rather gathering the consumer’s unadulterated perspective on topics and issues. The latter of course requires direct consumer interaction — you cannot design a product without engaging with the user of that product. But the reason most innovations never have the slightest chance of success is that they focus on incorrect demand spaces. The work done at the front-end is faulty.

This is where there needs to be a concerted effort to abandon the crutch that is the consumer verbatim.

It's the only way to improve the effectiveness of innovation projects and out compete smaller, more nimble players.

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