Don’t Research. Co-Create.

Have you ever heard a startup attribute its success to a particularly revealing survey? Or seen a cutting edge product idea emerge from a corporate focus group? Probably not.

Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, world famous innovators, both outwardly rejected the idea of gathering and listening to consumer feedback. I don’t blame them.henryFord

People are (mostly) unimaginative. (Yes, that includes you and me). We like to think in categories and realities. We’re not very good at predicting our own behavior—just look at my list of New Year’s resolutions. We also find it difficult to imagine possibilities outside of our existing frames of reference, and when it takes time and effort, we give up.

In psychology, this is known as reference bias—we feel the need to relate one thing to something else familiar, even if that relationship is false and strained.

Try this little exercise, for example: In 2 minutes, explain what an iPhone is (and how it works) to your great, great, great grandma. Note, she also doesn’t know what a telephone is, what a computer is, and what the Internet is, so those words won’t be of much use.

Tricky, right? Aggravating, even. But it serves to illustrate an important point: without our typical frames of reference, we struggle to make sense of and articulate difficult concepts and ideas.

Market Research and Innovation: Square Peg, Round Hole
Traditional market research tools, e.g., consumer surveys and focus groups, are meant to support incremental improvements to existing products and services—a better hair dryer, or an updated computer mouse. They’re pretty good at serving those purposes too. But they only operate within existing frames of reference, as my colleague Tim Munoz explains:

[Market research excels at addressing] the present set of products and services, today’s users and non-users, the here and now. It goes about as deep as you can go in a known and observable domain.”

In other words, market research works when the ‘thing’ you’re researching already exists in some concrete, tangible form. And that’s where Henry and Steve start to get frustrated.steveJobs

The problem is, when it comes to disruptive innovation, that ‘thing’ you’re looking for consumer feedback on doesn’t exist yet: you’re likely to be designing new-to-world or out-of-category products or services, without an existing frame of reference. You’re not just improving a known product, you’re building something that’s never been seen or experienced before. It takes a lot of mental effort to conceptualize that product, and a typical market research participant, doing a typical market research exercise, just wouldn’t get there.

Imagine for a moment you’re working on an exciting new product, ‘smart clothing’ for babies: you believe it’s going to completely revolutionize how parents interact with and care for their kids, but you want to learn more about what your consumers need it to do.

Do you expect great insights to come out of sending a survey to 100 parents about their most preferred ‘smart clothing’ features, none of which they’ve heard of? Do you think a focus group with a handful of bewildered parents will guide your product development in the right direction?

Believe it or not, most companies still take the same market research tools they use to refine existing products and services, and try and use them to explore consumer reactions to new-to-world innovations. Not a good move.

Co-Creation: Think Different
There is still real value to be gained by engaging with your consumers early and often in the innovation process, just ask serial entrepreneur and startup guru Steve Blank, who says not involving customers and their feedback from day one tops his list of cardinal startup sins.

“Hold on,” you say, “you’re telling us not to do market research surveys and focus groups with consumers because they’re ineffective, but at the same time you’re saying engaging consumers in the innovation process is essential. So what’s the solution?”

It’s called co-creation.

Co-creation differs from market research in three main ways: who you involve in your innovation process, what you do with them, and how you interact with them. And these differences can transform your consumer research from producing results that are two-dimensional, at best, and inaccurate, at worst, to producing nuanced, meaningful insights that can drive your product or service to success.

WHO: Co-creation involves alpha consumers in the design of your solution—from ideation all the way to launch. Alpha consumers are creative, articulate people who not only have the problem you are trying to solve, but also bring valuable perspectives on how to solve it. They are not your average, run-of-the-mill consumers.

For example, at 4iNNO we recently worked with a group of serious runners on a wearable technology solution for running: but these runners also happened to be UX designers, software engineers, running coaches and fashionistas. They were all hyper-aware of their unmet needs, brought valuable expertise to the problem, were able to think beyond their typical frames of reference, and were highly engaged throughout as they helped guide our product development.

In a way, your alpha consumers act as amateur product developers: they’re extensions of your product team, and they’re in it for the long haul. You might incentivize them with small rewards, but their motivation comes from a deeper place.

They’re part of an overall shift towards a democratization of product development, a blurring of lines between producers and consumers, as more and more people want to get involved in the ‘making’ of things: the same sentiment that explains why every college student wants to run a start-up, why Shark Tank is so popular and why Etsy gets stay-at-home parents fantasizing about starting businesses out of their homes.

For your alpha consumers, your success is their success, and if you play it right, not only will they provide valuable inputs during your product development, they’ll also act as Earlyvangelists, multiplying your market impact once you launch.

WHAT: Focus groups begone. No more clusters of semi-interested consumers sitting around a table and parroting each other, prey to the ‘loudest voice’ phenomenon, and devoid of any real-world context. There is an inherent bias built into focus groups that is widely known but swept under the rug, and the time has come to move forward: consumer research deserves better.

Co-creation instead involves designing intelligent exercises relevant to each stage of the innovation process, from upstream ideation, i.e., what problems should we solve, to downstream product definition and go-to-market options, i.e., how should we build and launch our solution.

Ideation exercises simulate or play out in real-life situations, borrowing from ethnographic research techniques, e.g., going on run-alongs and shop-alongs, and behavioral psychology, e.g., putting your alpha consumer through habit change exercises, and they optimize your chances of getting authentic feedback and breakthrough insight.

And there’s the actual “creation” part of co-creation: instead of just trying to imagine your non-existent product, alpha consumers participate in the design and building early mockups and lo-fi prototypes, react to proof of concepts, and prioritize product features. The feedback you get is exponentially more valuable than if you were to give them a survey asking them to check boxes about what they want and don’t want in a product.

HOW: The interaction you have with your alpha consumer is markedly different, and the skills required to co-create are more those of an empathetic entrepreneur, and less of a market research professional. We’ve summarized the differences between the market research and co-creation approaches in a nifty little table:

Average, daily users providing feedback prompted by researcher Highly articulate, creative users, acting as amateur product developers, actively engaged
Formal, researcher-respondent, transactional, one-off relationship Friendly, peer-to-peer, informal, trusting relationship developed over time
Fixed format, inflexible research plan with specific pre-determined objectives Fluid, able to constantly pivot based on new findings and to answer new questions
Hypersensitized, outside 'natural habitat' Immersive, in-situ, ethnographic research
Short, restricted interactions with participants 5x more time spent with co-creators, over a longer period of time


In the next installment you’ll learn how to know, find and recruit great co-creators.

Mahima Sukhdev

Senior Associate