I recently had a long discussion with a CEO about the role of market research in setting out the road map for future product and service developments. He was convinced that involving customers was the right way to go.
Experience told me that he was unlikely to succeed and that it would waste a lot of money. There are two distinct explanations for why customers cannot help you make these types of decisions. The first is generally associated with Apple and Steve Jobs. I am not sure if the idea really was his but the analogy comes from the world of ice hockey, so that fits. It says that the really great ice hockey players are not only fast and athletic, but they also know to skate to where the puck is going to be rather than where it is now. In product development terms anticipating the future is a key ingredient in successful product and service development. Customers can tell what they like and dislike about current market solutions, but they have no special insight into where the market might go next and they probably don’t give it very much thought.
The wish to get customers involved in this type of decision making comes from the slogans that we build for our organisations. Getting close to the customer is always a good thing. Having the customer at the centre of everything that we do is vital to our success. Day to day and week to week these slogans are valid. However, in business we need to keep in mind that customers want to enjoy consuming our products and services while relying on us to work hard to be masters of our own markets and to shape their futures. They want to buy great blue widgets without having to worry about trends in the blue widget marketplace.
The second explanation is more subtle and it comes from studies in cognitive behavior. One of the more interesting aspects of human behavior is the phenomenon of choice blindness. It turns out that while we are very confident in the constancy of the choices we make, in many instances we just make our answers up. Here is a short Horizon video that illustrates the point.
So you have to be very careful even if you ask customers about current product and services. Unless you fully engage them and also cross-check what they tell you, you may end up with bad information. So what can you do about it. Once you are aware of the pitfalls it should be obvious that you need to engage with professional researchers who will minimise the risks of wasting your money. Secondly you need to formulate some hypotheses about the future product or service and then test your ideas with customers. Thirdly you need to combine group discussions with surveys. One gives you a deep discussion where customers are fully engaged, while the later gives you a view which is broad enough to represent the entire market.