Idea or Problem?

What came first? The idea or the problem?

There’s no doubt that great products come from great ideas but where do great ideas come from? Endeavouring to brainstorm the next breakthrough product idea is often so all-consuming that innovators can forget to focus on the core purpose of any great product which is to solve a customer problem. 

Theodore Levitt famously coined the expression “People don’t want a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”  Every first year marketing undergraduate understands this concept, yet thousands of new products bomb every year. Why?  Because fundamentally they ether fail to solve the customer’s problem or are seeking to solve a problem that does not exist.

The Starting Point

The starting point is obvious.  In order to solve the customer problem, we must first identify it. Unfortunately this is not as simple as asking the customer.   Customers are very good at identifying their wants but inconveniently are not so good at identifying appropriate solutions.  Henry Ford famously illustrated this point “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Thankfully there are a raft of market research techniques which enable us to gain an intimate understanding of how a customer behaves in a given situation.

Ethnographic research involves observing subjects in their real world or natural setting as opposed to an artificial lab environment or focus group.  This level of up close access enables researchers to place themselves in the moment of the customer problem in order to gain a deep understanding of the points of frustration and decision making experienced by the customer.  The use of in-depth interviews allows the researcher to build rapport with the subject with a view to encouraging the disclosure of their emotional drivers and even illogical or irrational thoughts.

Problem Prioritisation

This type of research can generate hundreds if not thousands of customer problems experienced in various market settings. The trick lies in uncovering which problem or problems represent the greatest opportunity for your business. The next step in the process is to prioritize the list of customer problems by assigning highest value to those which presented most frequently during the research, are of highest importance to the customer and for which there is no satisfactory solution in existence.

Now, Brainstorm!

Problem based ideation ends with brainstorming rather that starting with it.  Instead of starting with an idea that might solve a customer problem which may not exist, problem based ideation gives you a strong foundation from which to brainstorm solutions to very real customer problems.  The essence of this technique is captured perfectly by Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit who regularly reminds employees not to fall in love with the solution but to fall in love with the problem customers are trying to solve!

If you would like IMS to help you uncover your customer’s problem, please contact us on +353 91 739450 or email me leonie@imsmarketing.ie

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