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August 27, 2012

Design Strategy: The Missing Link in Innovation Success?

I’m convinced that unrecognized market insights are the strongest drivers of successful innovation.  Without fresh and valid insight, the rest is just misguided process—a hammer looking for a nail, if you will.  But in my experience, there are two kinds of market insight, each with merit:

  • “Shallow” insights focus on functional or perceptual gaps.  Identifying these may be critical to ensuring parity performance or leapfrogging competition if that’s the game you’re playing.  I’d call these “observations” rather than insights because they are just that:  Out there for everyone to see.  Easy to spot in research, but not often defensible.  We may call them “friction points” or “workarounds”.  But perhaps they are the right target when you’re looking to evolve, enhance or extend a product line.
  • “Deep” insights are the transformative underpinnings of attitudes and behavior.  They deliver competitive advantage because they are interpretive rather than obvious.  They are true insights because they are derived from reading between the lines in what consumers say and do.  From connecting the often emotional dots sitting beneath several observations.  And from looking well beyond standard issue opportunities that limit your efforts to “fixes” and enhancements.  Deep insights are what we want if we are to reinvent a category, create a new usage occasion or surface a truly unrecognized need.

OK, now that we’ve determined whether our innovation challenge demands Shallow Observations or Deep Insights, how can we ensure that they effectively drive concept development rather than sadly fall through the cracks of our well-intentioned, multi-staged process?  Consider this five-step approach to building a bridge from superior insights to outstanding design:

1)    Create a work output continuum that builds toward a focused design direction your creative team can sink their teeth into.  For example, use insights to define a series of testable Consumer Promises.  Support these Promises with simple, early stage concepts that help lend clarity to their intent and bring them to life for consumers.

2)    Use this understanding to agree on what attributes consumers care most about in your category.  Bucket those attributes into Emotional, Perceptual and Functional dimensions.  Then, identify the gaps in consumer expectations.

3)    Use the most compelling Consumer Promise(s) and the most desired features and attributes to drive a set of Innovation Platforms.  Innovation Platforms provide concept development guidance and inspiration by describing the “what” of a new offering rather than the “how”.

4)    Ask your creative team to use these Innovation Platforms to drive their exploration.  That will ensure they go a mile deep against what you’re solving for and consumers care about—rather than a mile wide on stuff that’s off strategy.

5)    Then, integrate the best executions across Platforms to build coherent solutions.   Be sure to develop meaningful criteria for execution and concept evaluation:  Agree on what a “good idea” is and has to do for the brand, the marketplace and the organization.

A Design Strategy that is grounded in proper insights—and then properly carries them forward—is the missing link in innovation success.   It focuses creativity on delivering breakthrough Consumer Promises.  It builds team consensus that tells a progressive story and informs excellent decisions.  And best of all, it won’t let those game-changing insights (or observations) disappear into the innovation process abyss.

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