The best new products and services fulfill an unmet need of a specific segment of customers, developed based on robust knowledge and understanding of their motivations, daily lives, and problems. But what is the best way to achieve it?

Market research, regular conversations, and listening to customers is pivotal, so that you know them as well as possible. However, many experts caution about asking customers what new products or services they would like you to develop. The problem with basing new product development on customer input is customers might not be able to envision the truly blue sky possibilities.

As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have told me, ‘a faster horse.” It is doubtful that any customer would have thought in 1991 to ask for a product like the MP3 player to be developed.

That is why many successful organizations observe their customers in action. For example, an association taking field trips to shadow members in their professional day-to-day roles, or consumer products companies watching customers accomplishing a task like doing laundry to see the real problems they are coping with in action.

Use observation to truly understand your customers’ daily lives and problems rather than relying on asking them survey questions like which of the following products would you be interested in. Many popular next generation new products like the Swiffer were developed with this principle and by carefully studying and replicating the problem the customer was coping with (in this case how to make mopping dirt and messes easy).

Testing and focus groups are commonly used to refine ideas and products. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” as Steve Jobs is credited with saying.


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