Four Innovation Insights Only Customers Can Provide

Four Innovation Insights Only Customers Can Provide

By Hutch Carpenter

Innovation, whether through sole genius, synergistic pairs or wise crowds, does not happen in a vacuum. For an invention to become an innovation, it must change things for the better for a meaningful audience. But that leads to the question: How do we know whether an invention will actually help others?

Customers, it turns out, already have that information for us. Customers are a rich source of innovation insight, and the ultimate authority on what innovation is useful. Customers’ innovation insight takes several different forms:


Based on research, the four types of insight are different, and vary in the ease of eliciting and what they address. Let’s take a look.

All Customers – Jobs to Be Done

Jobs-to-be-done are the reasons why someone purchases a product. A classic formulation of this is by Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Jobs are not only the direct outcome one is looking for from a product, but also intangible elements. As the diagram to the right shows, it also includes the consumption context and the emotional effect. Context paints the broader picture of the job to be done. Emotional effect broadens the discussion to include the experience of using the product.

Of all the innovation insights, the jobs-to-be-done is the most plentiful. The challenge with this feedback is that it needs to be elicited from customers.

Emergent Customers

Say you had a product concept, and you wanted to get a read on its applicability to people’s jobs-to-be-done. More broadly, you’d love to know what works, what doesn’t and what else is needed to make a splash in the market. For this insight, turn to emergent customers.

In research done at UC-Riverside and Dartmouth Tuck School of Business (pdf), customers exhibiting with specific characteristics were much better at identifying and improving concepts that are more attractive to the market. Called emergent customers, these people possess “the unique capability to imagine or envision how concepts might be further developed so that they will be successful in the mainstream marketplace.”

Emergent customers’ traits:
Emergent Customer Traits

The researchers created two separate field tests of example products – home delivery and oral care – to validate their hypotheses about emergent customers vs. other types. Their tests confirmed the ability of these customers to better refine a concept for mainstream acceptance than other types of customers.

Lead Users

Lead users alter a company’s product to fit an emerging job they need fulfilled. MIT professor and economist Eric von Hippel popularized the existence of these users in his book Democratizing Innovation. Lead users experience new needs for products before the general market does, providing an early read on what will be broadly important in the future. They are also motivated to take action on these needs.

The needs they experience and the product adaptations they make are quite valuable:

Lead Users Precede the Market

An example is found in 3M. 3M ran a test of concepts developed by lead users vs. ideas derived from other methods. Lead users’ ideas were “significantly more novel than those generated by non-lead user methods. They were also found to address more original or newer customer needs, to have significantly higher market share, to have greater potential to develop into an entire product line, and to be more strategically important.”

Creative Customers

Creative customers are the uninvited dinner guests in the path toward mainstream innovation. While the other customer insights lead to stronger, more successful innovations, creative customers…um…don’t? The phenomenon of creative customers was researched by Berthon, Pitt, McCarthy and Kates in their paper, When customers get clever: Managerial approaches to dealing with creative consumers.

The researchers define creative customers simply as “customers who adapt, modify or transform a proprietary offering”. That actually sounds a lot like the customer type just described, lead users. But the researchers differentiate here by whether the innovations reflect emerging needs of the general market, and by whether creative customers are satisfying a core need or not. I’d add that creative customers are those whose innovations are pretty far afield from the mainstream path of expected product usage. And it’s not clear how companies should handle them:
Creative Customers

Examples of creative customer innovations include the guy who used FedEx boxes to create furniture. Admittedly, not what those boxes were made for. Or the car fueled by Mentos candy and Diet Coke. They’re creative, but certainly not of the lead user class of innovations. Yet each, in their own way, point to impressions people have about the products. Useful for innovation context.

The four innovation insights described here form a broad and powerful set on inputs from customers. While the broad involvement of customers in innovation is still limited and nascent, these different types of insight provide a path for future activity by firms.

At PreScouter, we help companies find the most innovative solutions to any challenge. Contact us today and challenge us with yours!

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