Leveraging Collective Intelligence in Product Design

I was reading Getting New Ideas from Customers. On Emphatic Design:

While empathic design suggests companies watch their customers use products within the customer’s environment, for most marketing organizations this is not always practical.

Which lead me to this article on  Emphatic Design. I like the way the article opens with this great insight.

What customers can’t tell you might be just what you need to develop successful new products.

Some notes:

Empathic design is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to identify potentially critical customer needs. It’s an important source of new product ideas, and it has the potential to redirect a company’s technological capabilities toward entirely new businesses.

If no current product exists in the market that embodies at least the most primitive form of a new product, consumers have no foundation on which to formulate their opinions.

But sometimes, customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution – even if they have real needs that could be addressed. Habit tends to inure us to inconvenience; as consumers, we create “work-arounds” that become so familiar we may forget that we are being forced to behave in a less-than-optimal fashion – and thus we may be incapable of telling market researchers what we really want.

Watching consumers has always yielded obvious, but still tremendously valuable, basic information. Consider usability: Is the package difficult to open? Does the user have to resort to the manual, or are operating principles clearly telegraphed by the design? Are handles, knobs, and distances from the floor designed ergonomically? Does the user hesitate or seem confused at any point? What unspoken and possibly false assumptions are guiding the user’s interaction with the product?

Unanticipated usage patterns can identify opportunities not only for innovation and product redesign but also for entering entirely new markets.

If the collective intelligence of the customers on unusual uses of the products can be tapped, it will be a gold mine of ideas for improving products. But how can you motivate the customers to share these stories with you? The blog entry suggests some ideas. Share yours in comments.