Musing on a role of Market Research in Innovation

In the last few weeks I have encountered this meme on Tweeter, LinkedIn group discussions and numerous product management camp presentations. In my opinion at the core of this debate are a fuzzy definition of the term “innovation” (that is often confused with “invention”) and poor understanding of market research methodologies that are often limited to survey and forum applications.

Since I don’t know a source of really authoritative, undisputable and complete definition of the term “innovation” I would like to propose that most innovations usually are new applications of previously invented technologies and/or processes. Truly innovative products usually find new ways to use existing inventions to improve experience of people. The confusion arises when practitioners focus on improving products rather than experience with the product, because that is where a difference between “innovation” and incremental “improvement” lives.

Product managers, who subscribe to a “thought leadership” (as oppose to “customer participation”) model, love to quote Henry Ford who supposedly said – “If I asked my customers what they want, they simply would have said a faster horse.” There is no debate that a motorized carriage was an amazing invention, which by the way was not created by Ford – he innovated scalable assembly line manufacturing, among other processes. However his quote only implies that survey and/or forum market research methodologies are not suitable for validation of truly innovative products in conceptual stage of development. He couldn’t help but notice all the horse manure on the streets and inefficiencies of small cargo shipping associated with horse carriages. The art of “noticing” how customers experience products, currently available to them, is called ethnographic research and there is no innovation possible without some degree of it.

During the last SVPCamp 2011, I was really tickled to see a presentation by Tony Ulwyck of Strategyn, called “Silence the Voice of the Customer (VOC) and Create Breakthrough Products”. My first reaction to the subject line of the presentation was extremely negative as I, like possibly many others, did not pay close enough attention to terminology he used. In fact VoC is defined by most practitioners as company stimulated customer feedback about your existing products, which is one of the best sources of inspiration for incremental product improvements. Considering this, Tony’s subject line is very valid and surely catches people’s attention. Since VoC collection mechanisms are designed around company’s desire to collect and process the content in the most efficient way, they often do not encourage free and easy sharing of customer experiences, and the ways and reasons customers use the products. That is the primary reason why VoC does not offer much opportunity for discovery of “Aha” insights that lead to innovation. However the quest of an enterprise for efficiency often leads to missed opportunities to innovate as freely flowing stories about how the customers use the products and what jobs they “hired” these products to do, contain insights that can be discovered only by much more expensive ethnographic research. Online Word of Mouth (WoM) opinion mining technologies hold a promise of help this discovery to become timely, scalable and economical process.

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3 Responses to Musing on a role of Market Research in Innovation

  1. Eugene says:

    Hi, Thanks for an interesting article. In my experience innovation in large corporations often fall onto the shoulders of the market research department and then making sense of the data with your cross-functional teams ranging from Marketing, Product Management, R&D and yes sometimes Sales. But it is often the insight by an individual, that really sparks innovation(s). This often leads me to think, “are the focus or questions broad enough or the segmentation wide enough?” That being said, in my research I often analyze the data and come to a conclusion BUT often ask the question “What have we missed?” Often, you get very interesting insight to questions you did not ask – remember “you get what you asked for” but sometimes it is better just to listen and observe.

  2. Gregory says:


    Thank you for a great comment that points to the reason why many large corporations depend so much on acquisition of small startups for their innovation pipeline. I think the innovation process that is departmentalized, as you describe in your comment, has very little probability to be successful as innovation process by definition is holistic and rarely survives organizational politics.

    Framing or defining the focus is probably the most critical and difficult part of the exercise, and I would suggest that asking questions while trying to gain an insight is a wrong approach all together-questions are good for validation. In my opinion, insights are best gained or formed much better and more often by observation, listening, hearing, learning and synthesizing the findings. Dialectic process of forming and asking questions is analytical by nature, and therefore a wrong tool for the job.

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