By Jeremy Korst
Today your target customer is your medium – from the products you develop to the experiences you deliver across every phase of the customer journey. Not only do today’s most iconic brands obsess over the customer experience, they also shape future innovation by listening to their target customers and inviting them to help co-create it.
Taking a customer-led approach to new product innovation is not a new concept. Google the term ‘design thinking’ and you’ll get about 2 billion results. And yet, very seldom do we see firms that are truly successful in adopting design thinking across every part of their organization. Why?
In an effort to outdistance their competitors, many businesses end up developing technology for technology’s sake, or building products and services without a well-defined target customer segment in mind to guide their strategy. In essence, they end up trying to serve all potential customers, rather than focusing on their most valuable.
No matter what product or service your company sells, this approach will never work. Before you can successfully apply design thinking, you first need to get crystal clear about who your target customers are, and just as important, who you’re not targeting.
Another common gap at companies is there’s a often disconnect between cross-functional teams, or a lack of shared vision for how customer insights and design thinking will be applied. From start to finish, marketing should play a key role in shaping the brand and product strategy, based on continual external feedback and data, in close partnership with the product development team.
With that context in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the areas brands need to focus on to successfully apply design thinking philosophy to improve product and customer experiences:
What is Design Thinking?
“Based on data, insights and direct customer feedback, you build an MVP product that solves for a specific need or problem.”
Design thinking is a methodology for creating products and experiences where you put your most valuable customers at the center of your development process. Based on data, insights and direct customer feedback, you set out to build a “minimum viable product” (MVP) that solves for a specific customer need or problem, and iterate over time to improve. When approached in the right way, design thinking reinvigorates a brand’s understanding of customer needs – the key drivers of their choices or actions – in a way that data never could.
This overall approach is based on the Theory of Jobs to Be Done developed by late, great Harvard Professor Clayton Christiansen, who’s seminal work around innovation, strategy and customers helped to reshape modern business strategy. The theory explores several key tenants needed to make marketing more effective and innovation more predictable by focusing on the customer’s “job-to-be-done” in a given category.
Creating better experiences for target customers
“Focus on your brand’s strategic target customers. Not all potential customers.”
Whether your company is selling products direct-to-customers or you provide a recurring service, obsessing over your target customers’ needs should be your center of gravity. And it’s important to start with a decision about who the brand’s strategic target customers are – not all potential customers. Simply put, your business can’t afford to try to be all things to all people! And, if you attempt to accommodate and equally weigh all customer feedback, you will likely end up with a generic or even “frankenstein” product or service that doesn’t truly meet the needs of any important group of customers.
By applying designing thinking, product designers (and marketers) can hone in on very specific “jobs” customers “hire” brands to fulfill. This is far more effective and actionable than broadly exploring customer needs. In short, it breaks down the needs of your target customers into specific parts. By looking at each discrete set of target customers (or segments), brands can better prioritize the right products, features and experiences to develop.
Another key benefit of design thinking is taking a more agile and iterative approach. No longer do designers have to wait for the marketing research and insights teams to relay critical customer learning or updates. Instead, the product design and marketing teams are actively collaborating throughout the process – listening to customers, observing and iterating product ideas on the fly.
Commons gaps and how to bridge them
“Together with the design or product development team, marketing should play a central role in shaping new innovation.”
Despite the many benefits of design thinking, there are a number of common roadblocks that get in the way of companies putting customers at the center of their innovation efforts. One is your brand’s overall culture. If you work for a firm with a product-centric or engineering-first mindset, you need to pay close attention to how you define the “minimum viable product” you develop.
When businesses develop new products or experiences from the “inside-out” – based on internal assumptions, desires or resource constraints – rather than what‘s aligned with their competitive brand position and target customers, disaster can strike. Technology firms in particular are notorious for this. Another common pitfall is building “MVP” products or experiences based on budget or resource constraints.
To successfully apply design thinking, companies need to embrace learning and experimentation. This means creating opportunities for employees to hear directly from customers, removing organizational silos and fostering collaboration across cross-functional teams. CMOs also need to work closely with other leaders to make sure marketing has a strategic seat at the table to inform product strategy.
Together with the design or product development team, marketing should play a central role in this process, helping to guide new innovation and maintaining an iterative process where customer and market input directly shapes the brand’s products and services.
Design thinking in action
“At its best, design thinking is about crowd-sourcing creativity.”
The pivot Microsoft made with the launch of Windows 10 is a great example of the impact customer-centric design thinking can make when applied in a holistic and consistent way. In contrast to the approach with Windows 8, which was developed in complete secrecy by the engineering team, Microsoft invited millions of customers to participate in the Windows 10 development process through its Windows Insider Program.
“Engaging directly with our target customers early in the design process helped to demonstrate our renewed commitment to transparency and designing a product that was based on their unique needs and feedback,” says Jeremiah Marble, a Microsoft marketing director and one of the architects of the Windows Insider Program. “It also created a groundswell of early product excitement that helped make Windows 10 the fastest adopted version of Windows in history.”
At its best, design thinking is about crowd-sourcing creativity – seeking out input and inspiration from your customers and the community around you to build better products. Realizing this goal is harder than ever given growing and ever-changing customers expectations. Customers today expect brands to not only meet, but anticipate their needs in the moment. People’s attention span and tolerance has also never been shorter. If brands get it wrong, we’re going to tune out.
To be successful, companies need to ground their innovation efforts in solving problems for their target customers – putting their needs first, not their own internal desires. This requires making tough choices to prioritize the right products and features. It also means empowering your collective marketing and design team to experiment, fail fast and apply better data and insights to improve the experiences you deliver customers.
*Note: An alternate version of this article originally appeared in Marketing Land