Empathy is key to new product success

June 21, 2015

I love the energy in the new product development space.

Inspiration for a new product or service, nourished by the intellect and passion of entrepreneurs and innovators, is just waiting to bust onto the market as it is fully realized in the consumer space. It is high stakes and potentially high reward. And one thing is sure, the pace can be blazing fast.

I’ve been involved in new product development, prototyping and flagship development for nearly a decade, and IT IS EXCITING. Even at my career prior, as part of a design-build firm, we were searching for ways to stretch the limits of materials, processes and technologies, layering and combining them in unique ways in our own little “laboratory” of design, so to speak.

But why? What’s at the center of it all? Customers.

Consumers crave products, services and experiences that help them relax, work, play (and play hard), stay healthy, communicate, grow up, grow old, look good, feel good, and be more efficient at doing all of it. As consumers, we have voracious appetites for anything that delivers well on any of those needs. So it is no wonder that a well-conceived new product or service can make a big splash. With the prevalence of smartphones and social media, it’s never been easier to disseminate information and communicate by “word of mouth.” Get it right and your customers will not stop talking about your product until that ripple you created gains energy and becomes a tidal wave.

Recently, I got to participate in a one-day sprint and see some ripples that are seriously threatening to make some big waves in the market during Customer Day at a Microsoft Ventures Accelerator program for entrepreneurs. This program selects a mere 14 companies, out of hundreds upon hundreds of applicants, to be sponsored for a few months out in Seattle. The companies have access to facilities, mentors, industry professionals and networking opportunities, and even funding, all in an effort to get their startups off the ground and flying high.

If you haven’t met a customer lately, what are you waiting for?

You have to check these companies out. Seriously, when you finish this blog, go check them out. You will be inspired. These entrepreneurs are trying to solve needs in technology-driven ways that includes consumer medical, data management, emergency services, legal document collaboration, personnel management, and other industries. At the recent Accelerator Day, they spent a few minutes pitching their ideas to an audience of mentors and industry professionals. Then we engaged in a Q&A where we gave feedback and probed around certain challenges or points of refinement.

I was also asked to sit on one of the two panels where the tables were turned and the entrepreneurs could ask questions of us. Other panelists included representatives from Starbucks, Costco, Trulia and some fellow Madison companies, American Family Insurance and Shine United (Yay! Way to represent, Madison!). I felt right at home both asking and answering questions about customers — the mind of consumers, the behavior of consumers, how to connect with consumers — because we live and breathe them in the Design Concepts process, where our mantra is “consumer-focused” innovation.

I walked away from the day invigorated. Being around entrepreneurs and startups is exciting and their energy is contagious.

I also walked away reaffirming what we live and breathe — you have to know your customer. A two-person startup and a billion-dollar corporation have to know the needs of their customers. That doesn’t mean an arm’s-length perception of what customers need. I mean a first-hand, directly observed, heard-it-from-the-mouth-of, walked-a-mile-in-their-shoes, experienced a day-in-the-life understanding.

In another words, you must build that consumer empathy. If everyone in your organization isn’t getting out into the field, you might be missing the mark on delivering awesome solutions for their needs. Even worse, you might risk your competitor getting that edge by knowing the consumer better than you. Billion-dollar corporations can engage in large programs to study their customers (and non-customers). Entrepreneurs and startups have to be scrappy and build that knowledge base in a more nimble fashion. But the equation doesn’t change – it still becomes an exercise of going out into the world and talking one-on-one with consumers. You can do that whether you are a team of two, a department of 50, or a division of 1,000.

If you haven’t met a customer lately, what are you waiting for?

— Written by Dan Sarbacker