HBS Working Knowledge: A Toolkit for Customer Innovation

It seems almost counterintuitive. But this Harvard Business Review excerpt by Harvard Business School professor Stefan Thomke and MIT's Eric von Hippel suggests that you stop listening closely to your customers—and instead give them tools for creating their own products.

A Toolkit for Customer Innvoation is an interesting article on empowering customers with tools to create innovative products. Just a new perspective for getting the customers exactly what they want. First glance, it's really supply chain management oriented, but the techniques mentioned can definitely be applied in other venues.

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We agree in different ways...

The article says to stop listening to your customers and let them create their own products, because that's what they want. Well, isn't letting them create their own products a way of listening to them and providing them with what they want/need?

You don't sell products, you sell solutions.

I don't buy Tide for its intrinsic qualities; I buy Tide because it gets my clothes clean. Either by listening to me and providing me with ways to get my clothes clean, or by providing me with the tools I need to design my own way to get my clothes clean, they're still designing for me, the user.

At the same time, while it's great to empower me to create my own versions of products, I seriously doubt most people want to do that most of the time. I tried out the now-defunct MyCereal.com, a site that let you create your own cereals, serving sizes, even serving containers, and purchase it online. It was really neat, but after the one free trial, I never used it. Why? When I need cereal, I don't have the time to wait a week to get it in the mail; I go to the store and buy some pre-packaged cereal. Plus, the MyCereal was more expensive and less healthy. (However, I could imagine that the site would have been great for those with very specific and uncommon food allergies or dietary needs.)

Dell does a great job of blending the two models; they allow people to create their own computers, but also have suggested/pre-made models for those who don't want to customize or don't know where to start.

It's still User-Centered Design, just that instead of understanding customers and designing products for them, you're understanding customers and deciding (based on their needs/goals) to design tools that allow them to design their own individual products.

We agree in different ways...

I completely agree with Jeff. As I read the HBS article I could only think of the deluge of HTML and Word documents that are created by folk that have tools to help them control their information, but do not understand how to use the tools, how to structure the information, nor how to make their information usable. Putting tools in the user's hands with out the knowledge needed to make the needed decisions can be problematic. Meg's O'Reilly Net article on guiding the client in the right direction is a good balance for the HBS article.

Combining Meg's article and the HBS article we can get to where Dell provides customer tools. Dell not only provides pre-configured machines, but offers warnings when building a machine that may have incompatible elements when building your own machine. This is a great smart application that took thinking and understanding what would be needed on the application development side (data elements, metadata, application coding, and logic) to reach this point. This development also requires working with the users, learing what they want, how they would like to use the tools, but also knowing that the users do not know everything.

This development process is at the core of a good content management tool. Very few users (content developers) know how to use MS Word properly so that information is built in a structure that is easily (relative term) converted to HTML that is properly structured, stored in an information repository with metadata to get to the microcontent at the paragraph level (or even the sentence level). The content developers usually do not have a grasp of information structure on a document level nor a more global level. The content managment tool provides capturing information in a structured format so the user/customer is only worrying about the content. At a very basic level CMS provides control of the content, but provides the guidence and structure that is needed to best find, use, and present the information to the end user.

If you read the fine print...

Actually if you read the actual article, there's a couple important caveats in it.

It's really talking about working with power users. Since it's manufacturing-oriented, the authors state that one of the key criteria for success is that the customer's company has a sophisticated engineering team who can use the tools you provide.

Specifically, the authors' experience is in the chemical industry, where there was a lag-time to prototype new chemical compounds. In essense their tools allowed client companies to create trial compounds own their own (via software) rather than having to have someone from the chemical company help them do this. So it enabled self-service prototyping. (The chemical company still had to actually mix up the trial compound.)

If I remember correctly, their other example was a tool that allowed electrical engineers to design circuit boards themselves.

This sort of enabling approach can be quite valuable, but as the authors themselves point out, it's intended for particular situations.

In both the cases mentioned, as well as Thomas' Dell example, it's also worth noting that the users were dealing with pre-built widgets, and I believe all the systems had feedback to warn about incompatible combinations. And they all dealt in physical "back-end" objects, where UI wasn't really an issue.

So it's a powerful concept, but one that needs to be used judiciously.