I know what I want! …But what do they want??

Forget about softnessHaving been in the tech world my entire career, I’m constantly around “idea” people.  These are very smart engineers and scientists who have spent their lives creating amazing things with technology.  As you might imagine, they value ideas extremely highly.  My main work with them is two-fold:  sifting, and execution.  Sifting through their numerous and seemingly equally-valuable ideas and working with them to determine which to pursue, and then helping them understand the value (and difficulty) of execution, and how it is often vastly more difficult than they original idea was to get.  Kicking this process off always starts with the same general double question:  Who are you making this for, and why do they need it?

Inventology, by Pagan Kennedy, looks at some of the statistics around ideas, specifically into how patentable ideas are discovered, and the results are very interesting.  A NY Times article about the idea mainly talks about serendipity, and if we can learn a way to cause serendipity to happen.  Also, Ars Technica has a great (brief) writeup about the book, its origins, etc.  The serendipity part of it is indeed thought-provoking, but what I found particularly useful was this quote about a study done regarding patents:

The PatVal study also underscores that the biggest source of inspiration for innovators comes from clients or users, people who will actually be using whatever the inventors create.

In my experience, engineers & scientists are not only very bright, but are also very aware of how bright they are.  Given this, they tend to be perfectly content coming up with ideas on their own.  In fact, if they didn’t come up with it on their own (such as, if they got the idea from a “client or user”), said idea is far less likely to be worked on.  This is why we so often see a “solution in search of a problem”, and this tendency can be fatal, especially for small companies.

So how do we fix this?  It isn’t fun for a tech leader in charge of new product development to spend a whole bunch of time at the beginning of a project trying to figure out what potential users want, rather than what the leader already *thinks* people want.  It is even less fun for them to subsume their own product development work under a plan devised by sales & marketing folks.  And yet, to be successful, there simply must be some of this.  Creating a product in a vacuum, especially for a small company primarily staffed with folks who have not introduced a new product before, fails pretty much every single time.  Period.

And yet, don’t we want tech people, especially at small companies, to be creatively thinking outside the box instead of just making what people say they want?  How to we get both user guidance AND creative thinking to work together?

For me, the answer lies in clarity, which I’ve talked about before.  If you let tech folks create products without tying their work strictly to the stated interests of potential users, which I think is critical, then it needs to be balanced out by getting a clear, concise answer as to why they are making the product decisions they are making.  If the answer is “It seems really cool”, or “I would love something like this”, then that person needs to be reminded they are doing product development and not research.  Product development needs a more specific end-game than research, and that specificity, demanded both up-front and continually along the way at each decision point, is what gives us products that we didn’t know we couldn’t live without.

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