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The key to successful product development is to keep your efforts focused on the needs of consumers rather than the needs of companies.

That was the insight shared by Art Middlebrooks, clinical professor of marketing and executive director of the Kilts Center for Marketing, at a recent presentation for students on design thinking.

“We identify people’s current needs, situations, and experiences, and then we look for where they’re dissatisfied with current solutions in the marketplace,” he told students at the Gleacher Center event, which was sponsored by Booth’s Product Management Club.

Design thinking, a process first codified at Stanford University in the late 1980s, emphasizes cross-disciplinary teamwork and consists of five iterative steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The ultimate goal is to create innovative solutions that are desirable, feasible, and profitable.

Middlebrooks shared with students the basics of design thinking, and offered anecdotes from his work and his New Product Lab classes that advise companies on innovation initiatives. Here are three of his top takeaways:

Empathize with Users to Gain Insights

Several years ago, Middlebrooks worked with a nationally known home-products company on an extension of its line of bathroom cleaning products. A crucial step was actually going into people’s homes and watching them clean their bathrooms.

“What we’re looking for are insights,” he said. “Insights take all those raw data points and collapse them down to a few core themes that we can then use for idea generation.”

It was during these visits that Middlebrooks observed a number of people who regularly applied automobile wax to their bathroom tile and bathtubs to repel dirt and soap scum.

 “We didn’t expect to see people using Turtle Wax on their shower tile, but it actually makes a lot of sense,” he said. What he and his colleagues realized is that people will take an extra step to avoid future pain.

Their learnings prompted the company to create a new product category, the daily shower cleaner, that is applied after each shower and reduces the amount of time and effort needed to clean bathrooms.  

Go to Extremes

When looking for interview subjects, start with extreme users.

“For example, if you’re researching something like pet-care products,” he said, “start by talking to people who have a lot of pets or a wide variety of pets. You might also want to talk to people who have pet businesses like dog walking or pet sitting.”

The reason, he said, is that people who experience problems with a product in an extreme way are often more articulate about their needs, which can then inspire innovation for the broader market.

Recently, a maker of sunscreen products gained valuable insights from two women with extreme needs, one of whom was into professional tanning and another whose skin was abnormally sensitive to sun.

The tanning enthusiast had a number of tattoos that needed to be shielded from the sun while the woman with sensitive skin wanted to protect the parts of her body— mainly head and shoulders—that received the most sun exposure.

“They both wanted something similar, which was more control over how they apply sunscreen,” said Middlebrooks.

Out of these demands came a prototype for a new sunscreen product modeled on a deodorant stick, with a narrow point at one end and a blunt edge at the other to provide greater precision and control when applying sunscreen.

Brainstorm the Right Way

The ideation phase is an important part of design thinking. But for a number of reasons, the way brainstorming is usually done—assembling a group of people in a room, with everybody talking at once—is not the most effective way to generate ideas, said Middlebrooks.

“We now have 50 years of research showing that group brainstorming not only kills ideas but disproportionately eliminates the very best ideas,” he said.

A better solution, he said, are online discussion boards that allow people to work individually at their own pace and not be distracted or intimidated by other people’s ideas.  Then the group builds on those ideas.

“You want to start with the individual, and then leverage the power of the group,” he said.


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