Is Product Innovation a Social Activity?

When it comes to product innovation should big industry rely on the voice of the consumer to guide its decisions? How much investment should a company make in social media monitoring, outreach and market research?

A recent post (Can You “Go With Your Gut” in Product Development?) on this blog asked whether market research was worth anything in product innovation. Some readers commented, that yes, “customers and buyers expect you to know who THEY are what THEY want.” While others pointed to the Steve Jobs business model: people don’t know what they want until you show them. Still others insisted that you don’t need market research as long as you’ve got an experienced product team that’s representative of the market.

Steve Jobs didn’t put much stock in market research it’s true, but he also didn’t innovate in a vacuum. His ideas grew out of the social. He brought his own life experiences and a deep understanding of humanity to his product innovation. To him, creativity was all about accumulating a vast bank of experiences and then connecting them to synthesize new things.

The problem with innovation today, he said in an interview with Wired, is that, “a lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

We might all agree that Jobs was one of the greatest innovators of our time, but his business model is not the only road to success. Procter & Gamble, for instance, welcomes new product ideas from outside the company. It has a network of partners who provide a constant pipeline of innovation. P&G’s Connect and Develop project has increased product development by 50 percent since 2000 directly through outreach and monitoring of social media, according to a recent article in Automation World.

New York based Quirky, a social product development startup, takes innovative product suggestions from the public and designs and manufactures the best products for the consumer market. Quirky recently partnered with Bed Bath & Beyond to sell the Pivot Power—an adjustable power strip Quirky brought to market. Quirky’s online community of 65,000 members is on a mission to democratize invention and is growing by 20 percent every month.

“For this [process] to work, you need to find the right people, ask the right questions and appeal to the right market,” said Jeremy Brown, CEO of Sense Worldwide, a consultancy that has helped Nike and Procter & Gamble set up co-creation initiatives, in a recent interview with Entrepreneur Magazine. Quirky, he said, “is successfully keeping its community engaged with social media and a user experience that allows people to feel comfortable sharing ideas online.”

In a new world where social and community are king, perhaps value is no longer something that a company creates and sells to you, but rather value is created by asking what are the needs of the individual.

Ford, among other indusrty leaders, seem to have embraced this philosophy. It has recently embarked on a product social networking effort to engage young people in conversation about its cars and brand. “Everyone has a right to a byte of the action, and we have embraced this might of the byte within Ford, through the use of internal and external social networks,” said Venkatash Prasad, Social Networking Leader at Ford, in an interview with Forbes.

Times are changing. What do you think? Do your customers have significant input into your product development?

This entry was posted in Industry News, Manufacturing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 thoughts on “Is Product Innovation a Social Activity?”

  1. Great article. There seems to be a common belief these days that the “wisdom of the crowds” can fix everything. But without a creative mind that is capable of thinking out of the box and “connect the dots” crowd-sourced innovations will remain “linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem”, as Steve Jobs put it.

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