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    How to Learn From Customers for Effective Innovation

    Use these 4 proven techniques to learn from your customers and grow your business.

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      Vaughan Broderick

      Vaughan Broderick

      In today’s issue, I’m going to share with you how to learn from customers and why it’s critical for innovation.

      Focusing on solving a complex problem from a technologists or experts position often leads to failure.

      According to HBR 70% to 90% of corporate innovation projects fail. And, in today’s world companies often need to innovate at 18 month to 3 year cycles to remain competitive.

      Unfortunately, most people focus on solving a problem from their own thoughts and knowledge rather than understanding the problem from a users perspective.

      When they do this, they risk spending precious time and resources ‘innovating’ without getting to the core of the matter.

      This is where learning from people (customers/users/staff) comes in.

      Build the right thing, before building it right

      While there’s no guarantee that human-centred design will be a ‘golden ticket’ for a successful startup or innovation project. Research can and does uncover critical insights that inform how you might build the right thing.

      Here’s 4 important aspects to understanding a problem:

      • Develop curiosity
      • Immerse yourself
      • Look to the edges
      • Derive insight


      Curiosity is a way of approaching the world. It is a deep desire to know, see or experience to learn.

      Having a ‘beginners mind’ is essential. Think of a beginners mind as approaching the world as if you are on holiday. That feeling that everything is new.

      Because, when we are trying to understand someone elses world we suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’. We see things from our own perspective and make assumptions.

      Immerse yourself

      When trying to understand a problem, immerse yourself in a users world.

      What this means is that we need to build empathy for the people involved. What is their world like? What are their perspectives? Their aspirations, feelings, frustrations and desires.

      To uncover this depth of information there are some tools that can help us:

      • Interviews. Conduct interviews with people ideally in their usual setting (home or office). This way, they are more at ease and likely to share more revealing information.
      • Observations. Watch people performing a task or going about their job to gain more context of what the environmental factors are that may be barriers or enablers.
      • Focus groups. Sometimes focus groups can be advantagous to see what happens between group members. However, group dyamics may need to be well managed.

      Look to the edges

      Extreme users

      Whenever you are exploring an idea, there are people that sit on the fringes, the disengaged or ‘extreme users’.

      Often, these people will hold interesting perspectives on how things should be done and may have even ‘hacked’ interesting ways of making something work.

      People like this may point to ‘bright spots’ (things that are working) which are opportunities to amplify or leverage. They might become mainstream customers in the future.

      Also, look to other industries to see how similar problems sre being solved. There is a lot to be gained from this exploration because innovation is usually a combination of existing solutions.

      So, one solution that works in one context, could be helpful (with some alterations) in another context.

      Derive insight

      Most importantly, ask yourself ‘what insight can be gained from this exploration?

      There are some useful tools to help us derive insight. Here are 4 of my go-to approaches:

      • Affinity maps. A collection of data organised into themes and sub -themes to identify commonalities, conflicts and gaps.
      • Empathy maps. Another way of gathering evrything a person saud and did, then infering what they were feeling and thinking. Importantly, what are the needs, surprises or insights.
      • Journey maps. Particularly, powerful for services and the interactions between customers, staff and technology. It helps to idenntify friction points, responsibilities and critical cuccess factors.
      • Jobs to be done framework (part of the value proposition innovation guide).
      Empathy Map for Design Thinking

      In summary, learning from people is where the insight will often come to inform your solution.

      Take the time to do this well and gain insight will pay big dividends for your innovation project.