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Innovation: Listen to Customers at Your Own Peril

"If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse" -Henry Ford

"How can I possibly ask someone what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphics-based computer is? No one has ever seen one before." -Steve Jobs

Are customer opinions worth surveying when creating a new product, especially one that is radically innovative? A product designer will likely give you one answer (see quotes above) while a marketer will give you quite another (Why build something no one will want to buy?)

Listen to the customer too much and you risk creating something that's evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and full of features folks say they want but in the end won't pay for. Ignore the market and you wind up shipping the next Colgate Kitchen Entrees.

The HBS Working Knowledge discussion What is Customer Opinion Good For?, by professor emeritus Jim Heskett, captures the debate well. Most respondents took a boring but correct "it depends" position.

Some argued that if you are extending a current product, designing a competing product, or entering a category where users balk at paying for features they won't use, then by all means turn the market research dogs loose!

But if you are creating a new product category, or even introducing a revolutionary concept to an established category, then market research is not going to help you much. No amount of customer surveying in 2000 was going to tell Apple to build iPods, iPhones and iPads.

Here is a sampling of the comments:

  • "If a company's goal is to develop a product to directly compete against another product already on the market then using customer surveys, as well as Internet chatrooms and such, can put the new product into a great position, especially if the first product gets some bad press and already has some readily know faults." --Alexander
  • "As the person who was responsible for bringing the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast to market when I was a young VP of Marketing at IHOP, we did absolutely NO market research on an item that has conservatively been responsible for at least 200 million in sales for that chain." --Stephen
  • "In cases where a need for a new product has to be created, (market research) is necessary to arouse awareness of the product and interest in its benefits in order that prospective customers accept the product and eventually purchase it." --Fidel
  • "True innovation is often such a departure from the norm that it requires behavioral changes that can't be imagined by any consumer except the most visionary, early adopter, until a prototype is in hand." --Aaron
I side most closely with the view of this anonymous poster.
"Too many companies think they can simply ask customers what they want and go build it. This leads to incremental, me-too product enhancements. The key is to really get at customers' unmet needs and preferences that they find hard to articulate. It takes more work, but that's where the pay-off is."
I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Is customer opinion becoming less important in product design? Or, as the economy continues to keep spending in check, is research the best hedge you have against product failure?

Put another way, is your first hire in the New Products Department a designer or a marketer?

(Photo courtesy Flickr user inhisgrace, CC 2.0)

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