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How to get great ideas for your product

Part of my job as a strategy consultant is to help my clients develop a roadmap to improve their business.

No matter what the context, it all starts with good ideas. You need the raw ideas before you can start exploring your options.

Over the the years, I've found that there are three methods that work very well for generating good ideas. These three methods can help you find ideas to improve your product or service.

The three methods are:

  • The naive child;
  • Through the looking glass;
  • Habits & Fears.

The naive child

This one may seem obvious, but it takes some practice to get it right. You need to interview the users of whatever product or service you're designing. Face-to-face interviews work best, but phone interviews will do too.

When you begin the interview, say that you will pretend not to know anything. Pretend not to know anything about the interviewee's business, her life or personality. Pretend not to know anything about your product or service.

Then start asking questions. A typical opener is: "Describe to me your typical work day". From there, be on the lookout for emotional statements. Children are great at picking up emotional cues. Try and get back to your inner child and open up to the emotions of the person you are interviewing.

A simple way of doing so is asking how your customer feels about something. Then ask her why she feels that way.

"How do you feel about that?", followed by "And why do you feel like that?" is the best way to find out what makes someone tick.

The answers you'll get will light up the idea-generating parts of your brain. Beware not to talk about these ideas to the customer. Write them down and stay focused on your playing the role of a naive child. Keep asking how your customer feels about something and why.

A few days after the interview, go over your notes once more. The idea-generating parts of your brain will light up again. You'll come up with yet another batch of new ideas .

Through the looking glass

"Through the looking glass" is a method you can use yourself or with a group. The idea is that you look at your product or service from a different perspective.

Say you're designing a car. To come up with ideas for improvement, people tend to look at other cars.

Their thinking goes like: "an example of a car is .......". Turn that around and instead ask what a car is an example of.

To find novel ideas, go from "an example of a car is ............" to "a car is an example of ............."

Your mind broadens and the ideas come by themselves. Because what is a car not an example of? It's an example of a shelter against bad weather. It's an example of a place where your mind can wander randomly. It's an example of somewhere you can listen to music as loud as you want.

Looking through the looking glass generates novel ideas for improving your product.

Habits & fears

I lifted the "Habits & fears" method from the excellent "Jobs to be Done"-framework (JTBD).

Find out what deters customers from using your product or service. Your interviews notes from the naive child method can help here.

The JTBD framework calls these deterrents:

  • The Anxiety of the New Solution
  • The Allegiance to the Current Situation

or: habits and fears.

Try and find as many habits and fears as you can. Ask yourself (or the group) what your product can do to take away these habits and fears.

Try to understand why people cling to their habits and why they are afraid of change. It'll lead to novel and valuable ideas for improving your product or service.

I recently helped a B2B client decide what features to put in the pilot of a new customer portal. During the customer interviews, one customer said that he did not want to order online. He said he "did not trust the machine" to take his orders. He preferred human communication instead and always made his orders over the phone.

I'm sure the idea-generating part of your brain lit up while you were reading that last paragraph. A live chat feature could take way the fear of losing the human element. Having a sales rep do the final validation of an order could create more trust. Or even something as simple as putting a picture and a phone number of a sales rep on the portal might comfort that customer.

Asking "What can we do to take away the customer's fears and to change her habits?" leads to many a good idea.

Asking what you can do to change someone's habits is a great source of ideas too. Yet you cannot always change someone's habits.

During the same B2B project, I learned that many customers preferred to use their own systems to order. Most clung to generating a Purchase Order (PO) from their own systems and mailing it to my customer. Breaking that habit is a touch challenge, if not an impossible one.

It's not because a habit is hard to break that it is not a good source of ideas. In the example above, one idea we had was an upload feature. Instead of mailing the PO, customers could upload it to the portal.

This has several benefits. After uploading the PO, the portal can show the customer pictures of what he's ordering. This builds an layer of comfort and trust that is missing from the old way of mailing the PO. Also, this feature sets the way for future systems integration. That would tighten the bonds between my client and its customers.

Finding the right ideas is one thing

It's not easy to find ideas, but making a selection of what ideas to invest time, effort and money in is at least as tough.

The people behind the Hygger.io product management tool have written an in-depth overview of the different prioritization methods to build a product roadmap with.

But before you start prioritizing, first have some fun looking through the looking glass at fears and habits with childish naiveté!

Improve your decision making

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