The Customer Experience Dilemma

I have spent my career designing customer experiences and the innovative products and services that enable them.  Through the years there has been a consistent dilemma between designing to deliver on what consumers say they want, and designing to deliver what they didn't know they wanted. Apparently I'm not the only one.  Vanessa Friedman's column in this week's FT Weekend talks about how this same dilemma is plaguing the fashion industry right now. 

What is interesting is that the fashion industry is at the same time similar and different from the work I lead for large corporations in B2B and B2C industries.  What's similar is that whether you are working in a typically "creative" industry or a typically "non-creative" industry, the act of creating new products, services, and experiences is still a creative act.  So whether you work in fashion, healthcare, industrial goods, or financial services, you will still need to venture into the realm of uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unknown in order to develop something truly new.  This is true whether the new offering will succeed wildly or fail spectacularly.  And that is scary.

The main difference between the fashion industry and others that I have mentioned is the expected pace at which new offerings must hit the market.  This makes it more difficult to take the risk out of developing something new.  That's because the work involved to understand the underlying motivations of why consumers buy what they buy is a very deep, thorough process.  There is just too little time in the fashion industry to do it justice, and as a result, designers are left to experiment more or less blindly with their new offerings. 

I know some people will have issues with my last sentence, pointing to the designers who seem to have their fingers on the pulse of their brand, or the zeitgeist at large, and can create new offerings with uncanny insight.  While this is true, they often don't know what, specifically, they are intuitively tapping into, and as a result can easily miss cues that would alert them to changes that may prompt new market behavior.  This inability to articulate the drivers of market behavior makes it more difficult to create something new, when the people who are backing them financially need something concrete on which to base their investment decisions.  As Vanessa points out, these concrete drivers tend to fall back on either creating formulas based on past success or current market research - both of which are wrought with the bias of what is familiar.

I empathize with the financial backers, and I also believe that random creation  doesn't need to be tolerated.  However, expecting the market to articulate the next new offering is a similarly misplaced expectation.  The real question is how to get around it, and what realistic expectations should be set.  In my next post I'll talk about how I manage this dilemma, and I'd love to hear your experiences.