How can we innovate?

Find opportunities for innovation by understanding your customers’ behavior.


Today my team and I were visiting a client to run a bi-weekly iteration meeting, to align the whole project team, from design to marketing to business to development to social and seo.
After the meeting I was chatting with our client about on- and off-line shopping experiences, and integration of the two.

At some point, he asked —“How can we create innovation?”.

“I mean, how can we find something valuable to add to our customers’ current experience?”.

He went on — “I’ve seen many experiments from world renowned brands and from our competitors, and they all seem like they’re missing the point.
They seem self-referential: they are what the brands need and what they’d like their customers to need, but customers actually don’t. Oh, well, customers might end up playing around with apps or in-store touch-screens, but they don’t really need them”.

“How can we make something that our customers need and that is relevant? How can find room for innovation?”.

“Last week I was in our store in Milan and saw a couple of women browsing products: they were video-calling a friend, or possibly a sibling, that was at home and they were showing her products while she provided ideas and suggestions.
In the meanwhile, one of them was checking and comparing prices online with her phone”.

“I was completely blown away, as that was miles away from the shopping experience I had in mind.
How could I ever have thought about that?”.

“How did you get to know that?” — I replied.

“Oh, I just observed them”.

Right, that’s the point.
Observing them.

The myth that innovation comes from Jobs-like visionary leaders, or sparks from moments of epiphany is just that, a myth.
I mean, I think there’s value in that kind of narrative, but I feel it’s more to motivate today’s leaders rather than in providing a way to go, a methodology for innovation.

To innovate something, you need to deeply know and understand the current state of the system you’re acting in, and more importantly, you need to do it in the real world.
You need to know your users and your customers, talk to them, observe their behaviors, observe how they use your products, how they interact with items and space in your stores, and so on.
You need to understand how they react emotionally to your services, and how they talk about your brand.

What else could you have known if you closely observed your customers interact with your products in the real world?

And what more could you have learnt if you talked to them and asked them about their behaviors?

On-field research can go a long way in that direction, helping you gather a body of information about your customers behaviors, needs, expectations and emotions.
Put all that on a map, find the positive and negative peaks, see where you excel and where you fail at providing a good experience to your customers.

How can you improve your product from there?
How can you turn so-so to nice, and good to awesome?
How can you make it memorable?

And going back to the title of this article, where are you missing an opportunity? Where is there room for innovation?

Maybe a behavior you weren’t aware of, maybe a growing demand, maybe a touch-point you are not controlling or a side-product that can be provide a companion experience to your main brand experience…

For sure, now you have a field of knowledge where your ideas can be grown and nurtured.

This is now the right time for disrupting ideas and epiphanies: within a context, with real-world information and with deep comprehension of the people’s needs.

Ideas that are born and evolve in a vacuum — be it a marketing, design or engineering department — only exist there, in a vacuum. They don’t exist in the real world, and they fail to provide relevant experiences to people.

Innovation begins when you step outside of the meeting room and outside of the building.