Last month I was the Chairperson for the Voice of the Customer (VOC) Summit Sessions at the Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston. To kick off the day, I was asked to deliver some opening remarks stating my thoughts on the state of VOC today. This was an interesting task, and it caused me to reflect on how I have evolved in the way I learn from consumers throughout my career.
When I started my career in the late '80's as an engineer in a medical device company, I was continually frustrated when salespeople would come in from the field with very unrealistic requests for changes to products that the "customers asked for." It wasn't that I didn't believe them, but I knew that neither the salespeople nor the customers should be responsible for identifying the right product solutions to solve their problems. When I asked to go into the field with a couple of sales people, upper management thought I was nuts. However, after pulling in one of the biggest cost saving projects in the company one year, I was given the "perk" of going into the field. It only took a few visits with customers to identify some new ideas that would make their lives better, as well as cut a few costs internally. It was so successful that salespeople started asking for me to accompany them to difficult customer sites. The funny thing was, that if you asked me what tools and techniques I used, I would not have had an answer beyond "it just makes sense." At that time, I didn't even know what ethnographic research was.
Fast forward to today. It seems that everyone knows about ethnographic research, and everyone from engineers to marketing people to designers spends a considerable amount of time with consumers. But here's the catch. It's no longer easy to just have a chat with consumers and find the problems they may be wrestling with. All the low hanging fruit is gone. And yet, people continually feel as if they talk to more people, or the right people, or find better tools, then the answers will jump out at them the way they did initially for me so many years ago.
Consumers can't tell you what to do. They can tell you about their experiences, and maybe suggest improvements to what you are already doing. But they can't directly guide innovation. That's our job. This is why I'm always talking about the importance of what I call translation. Because the answer is no longer lying out in the open, it must be mined. This requires looking beyond what consumers say and deriving what motivates them, even when they don't even know what that is. It requires connecting those motivations to plausible new solutions that will satisfy those motivations.
Creating new ideas is easy. Making the right connections is hard. But it's the only way to get to the fruit that's left at the top of the tree. Everything else is gone.