Competitive companies make innovation a priority. Winning companies make innovation a routine practice.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, "routine innovation"—the ability to capture the magic of innovation in a repeatable process—is the mark of the world's leading brands. These companies are admired, studied, and emulated. They hit home runs year after year by designing great new products that confound their competitors and delight their customers.

I was first introduced to the power of user-centered design as a vehicle for "routine innovation" at Stanford University as a Product Design student in the 1990s. Since then, I've had the opportunity to apply repeatable design processes at various product design companies such as IDEO and have seen them consistently fuel innovation.

More recently, I've supported the ongoing effort to deconstruct and codify the innovation process at Stanford's new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design—known as the ""—as a Consulting Associate Professor and Strategy Board Member. Students and companies alike seek new techniques for consistently sparking creativity.

Though specific methods vary among organizations, the design and innovation process can generally be categorized into three steps:

  1. Understand and observe.
  2. Generate and prototype.
  3. Test and iterate.

Figure: While specific methods vary, the design and innovation process can generally be categorized into the three steps outlined above. Marketers can employ online customer communities to provide the regular, ongoing, meaningful contact with customers that fuel this process.

This three-step innovation process has direct applicability to marketers. Product owners must understand the environment where a product will be used, and the motivations of those who will be using it. They need to rapidly generate compelling product concepts and vet the prototypes with others. And they need to test their concepts, using real-world feedback to produce iterations that move designs forward.

Similarly, outbound marketers can use the process to design and test the effectiveness of new ad concepts, logos, and messaging, ensuring that they will reach their target audience.

Most importantly, to be successful, the innovation process requires regular, ongoing, meaningful contact with customers—a tall order for overtaxed marketing departments.

However, many forward-thinking companies have found the answer: online customer communities built on Web 2.0 social media applications.

It Takes a Community

Online customer communities offer a new solution that gives companies unprecedented access, flexibility, and interaction with their customer base.

Clients can use online customer communities to test concepts with users, get real-time feedback at little or no cost, have customers vote on favorite features, gather input on high-priority features, and more. For the first time, companies can easily and cost-effectively include customers in the design process, and allow them to play a primary role in ongoing product iteration.

Once the lines of communication are open, it's easy to gather "insight on demand," introducing real-time feedback into new product designs, features, or brand concepts. In fact, the kind of direct connection made possible by online customer communities is unique in its ability to fuel the innovation engine across all three steps of the innovation cycle:

  1. Understand and observe. Customers have a secure, trusted environment where meaningful conversations can take place. Companies hear rants and raves, discover unknown problems, learn what works and what doesn't, and gain valuable, uncensored insight into the world of product users.
  2. Generate and prototype. Product-design teams have access to continuous, ongoing feedback from customers to drive innovation. Customer communities are especially well-suited to support co-creation and the iterative process, bringing clarity to requirements and evolving early designs into great products.
  3. Test and iterate. Marketers can conduct in-depth research with product users who are willing and eager to speak their minds. Marketers determine the types of questions to ask, the types of information to obtain, the products on which to focus, the types of media stimuli—advertisements, images, logos, concepts—they want to evaluate, and more.

Case in Point: One Company's Formula

For most organizations, a great way to start is to engage existing customers on existing products. Building customer communities in this way is a low-risk proposition—companies already have products in the hands of their customers and an online community is a great way to get honest, interactive feedback.

With an open and ongoing communication channel, your company will soon discover areas for product improvements, as well as unmet customer needs.

For example, a software company uses a community platform to create a persistent, interactive feedback loop between its customers and its product-development teams. The community includes a "Feature Requests" area that gives the customers an authentic voice in the design cycle. Rather than providing one-time feedback, customers are now an integral part of the day-to-day design process, helping direct the priorities and flow of future development.

For example, customers can:

  • Suggest new features and product ideas. Customers post suggestions to a central location that is accessed by the company's employees, product managers, and other customers, so everyone in the community can contribute to the same discussion. Customers not only review existing products but also contribute ideas for how the products should evolve.
  • Vote for features that they would like to see implemented. The application tallies votes and dynamically lists the most popular feature requests first, so the most valued requests rise to the top. Ideas can come from any source within the online community—employees, product managers, or customers.
  • Comment in real time on users' ideas and requests. This iterative process fosters true collaboration between the company and its customers. Using ideas that have been vetted and refined by customer input, the company efficiently delivers new features that are on the mark.
  • Gain visibility into the development status of requested features. Customers are notified when their feature request is delivered. They also get visibility into the company's development processes and timeline, and they see that their requests are noted and acted upon, creating a strong connection between the company and its user base.

As a result of its online customer community, the company gets much more than basic product feedback. It gains deep insight into the needs of customers, and creates ever-greater customer loyalty by embracing customers as co-designers.

Most importantly, the company goes directly to the source for product enhancements, pulling new innovations and ideas directly from the minds of the customers who use, buy, and recommend its products. This is the holy grail of customer-centered product design.

Online customer communities can enable the connections, host the conversations, and facilitate the processes that make routine innovation possible.

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John Kembel is cofounder and CEO of HiveLive ( and a consulting associate professor and strategy board member at TheHasso Platner Institute of Design (the "") at Stanford University. Reach him at