In the not-so-distant past, the product development research process largely ignored the needs and wants of the customer. The collective mindset was “we work for the customer since the customer can’t think or do so for themselves”. Executives would “freeze” the ability to submit any change orders. Key decision makers would dictate orders based on their own preferences and respective visions without even interacting with the one source of the truth – the customer.

With this precedent set in stone, product development teams were missing the one key player that could make or break their success in the marketplace: the customer. Today, in 2018, changes in popular culture are now forcing product development to move past inflexible processes that omit the end user. As a result, product development is swiftly approaching inclusive processes and collaborative solutions.

Shifting the Paradigm from “Working for” to “Working with” Customers

This old-world approach to product development worked because it was the norm to “color within the lines”. While this behavior was exemplary with respect to operational efficiency, it was dismissive of customer preferences and market research. Back then, and, surprisingly, today, some brands still tend to adhere to this process and the philosophy that customers don’t know what they want until they see it. Nowadays, these brands are failing and that philosophy no longer holds any weight. The marketplace is saturated, millennials are an unrivaled force and we live in a world that is increasingly embracing of personal choice.

In 2018, customers do know that they want and what they need. Not only that, we’ve evolved into a society that is compelled, and, in fact, enticed, encouraged and almost dared into divulging everything. As such, customers are desperate to be heard. They wish to share their experiences, frustrations and ideas and they seek out an attentive audience to do so. As market researchers, we need to provide a forum that enables this. As a result, we have shifted the paradigm of the product development research process from “working for” to “working with” customers.

Millennials are Changing Everything

The impact of Millennials is not up for debate. Like Millennials, prior generations (X, Boomers and Matures) also upheld their respective values and demonstrate loyalty to specific brands, products and services based on defined principles that vary one generation to the next. The Millennials’ key principles of empathy and equality are most directly relevant to the product development research process today. Their collectively deep acceptance of differences and ability to connect with others affords them an enviable position with respect to being able to engage with their customers to truly understand their buyer’s needs and wants. As a result of this approach (and generationally-defined skill set), this group has made it clear that a refreshed marketing look and feel, wrapped around a hip slogan, for a tired brand is no longer enough. To engage customers is to be engaged. To know them is to be them and this has profoundly changed the product development research process.

“Customer-Centric” is not just a Hype-term – It’s a Business Imperative

As a result of this change in popular ideals, customers can now offer the greatest inspiration, particularly for product development. Companies with successful launches are more customer-focused than their competitors, especially in the initial stages of product development. Bringing customers in earlier in the product development research process is the new standard. The era of making unilateral decisions in the absence of customer input, and asking customers to react to a concept they had no prior exposure to, has closed. Customer-centricity is the new business imperative. Companies will live – or die – based on how attuned they are to their customers’ ever-changing preferences and views.

Since the turn of the century, new product development frameworks have been embraced to inject a higher level of input and participation from customers. One of these frameworks, the Fuzzy Front End of Innovation (FFE) embodies the spirit of innovation within the product development research process. Key elements of this framework include market research to collect and identify design criteria, then apply those criteria in an ideation session. This effort is typically followed by idea analysis market research to map the potential fit to the customer. Next, the concept is made more tangible and ultimately, prototyped for testing through various stages of product development.

Another framework, Design Thinking also employs a series of iterative steps anchored in co-creation via collaboration between the company and the customer. Similarly to FFE, key elements here include empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping and testing. However, unlike FFE, Design Thinking is wholly driven by the customer.

The takeaway? In 2018, value your customer, engage in new market research methodologies and tap into the blossoming potential in an evolving consumer landscape.

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