All your work, all your ideas, all your devotion and sacrifice mean nothing if you’re not confident of whom you are doing it for or why. In order to succeed—whether you are developing a new product, service, or process—you must understand the needs, wants, and sometimes fears of the person you are targeting.
Why is this so hard to actually do? In a way it’s all about you, and your over-confidence in your expertise, experience, and education. These things define your perception of the world. Eventually you no longer realize that your broadest assumptions about the world come from the narrowest of perspectives—your own. You might be tempted to believe that you can know your customer without having actually done the legwork of going out and discovering just who they are. However, it is dangerous to assume (perhaps because of demographics, or perhaps because you started your company for people just like you) that they share your values, dreams, and beliefs.
This common mistake was beautifully illustrated a few years ago at a meeting with a group of engineers, marketing people, and management at HP. At regular sessions like this one, teams review ideas for future concepts. This is the time to pitch your best idea and to get management’s green light to move forward. In this particular meeting, one of the team members got up to present his take on a new concept. I watched, fascinated, as he ran through the features he felt would make it a success. His ideas were certainly innovative, yet I couldn’t grasp why a customer would want some, if not most, of the features. Instead of adding value, they added complexity. In my opinion, the eventual owner of this product was going to be frustrated, not excited. When I inquired about which customers were asking for the specific features, he responded that he didn’t know; he hadn’t talked with customers. He’d added the features because he wanted them. The result was a set of features designed for HP engineers rather than an everyday customer.
I see examples of this kind of backward thinking all the time. Hours of labor and focused thinking going into research and development that leads to clever but basically useless ideas. And this leads to a crucial question at the heart of many seemingly innovative yet ultimately unsuccessful ideas: Have I already decided what my customer wants without asking them?
It’s crucially important to understand what people really value, and why they value it. I neither need nor want a $500 pair of shoes, or a $1,000 status bag, but millions of people consider them essential components of their lives. It would be incredibly foolish of me to discount their emotional and practical connections to these products just because they don’t apply to my life. You have biases and you make judgments, just like all of us. Learning to step outside of them and not be sidetracked by your own opinions about the relative worth or value of a product is crucial. If you can’t grasp this, you’ll never be able to create an innovation that your customers either need or want.