If you develop a new offering, will customers buy it? That's the perennial challenge for today's companies, and it's becoming more acute as pressures to innovate "first and fast" intensify.

Product launch cycles are becoming mercilessly short, and companies are continually racing to commercialize innovations ahead of the next competitor. If they can truly break new ground, so much the better.

Indeed, according to research published by the Harvard Business Review, the highest long-term, cumulative returns on innovation investments come from disruptive products.

But in the effort to be disruptive and win the innovation race, organizations often fail to gather the advance insights that separate their launches from the estimated 90% that fail. Those debacles—such as the infamous introduction of New Coke—are often preventable with the right discovery and development process.

The Answer: Marrying 'Design Thinking' and 'Open Innovation'

That's the premise behind a strategy called Open Design Thinking, which is intended to improve the success rate of product launches by combining two proven disciplines.

Many marketers are already familiar with the first process—Design Thinking—a human-centered, iterative, intentional, and prototype-driven approach to inventing new products. The goal is to understand what customers need by walking in their shoes, generate creative ideas from those learnings, and eventually turn the most promising concepts into products—which are repeatedly tested with buyers and refined before they hit the national stage.

Design Thinking is an empathetic, customer-driven approach exemplified by OXO, a leading manufacturer of kitchen utensils. Noticing that his wife Betsy, who had arthritis, was having difficulty gripping standard kitchen tools, OXO founder Sam Farber saw an opportunity to create more "comfortable" products, and he built a successful business around them.

The second discipline, Open Innovation (OI), fosters insights of another kind. Similar to crowdsourcing, OI involves tapping a worldwide community of scientific and technical experts to accelerate the development of groundbreaking products. Rather than remaking the wheel, companies look for existing technologies to help them turn new ideas into reality, often in unexpected ways.

For example, a household-name food manufacturer wanted to reduce the sodium content in potato chips while maintaining the same salty flavor. It found a new process for creating nano- and micro-sized salt particles from a Swiss research lab that was using salt crystals in its testing for a pharmaceutical application related to osteoporosis.

It's by blending Design Thinking and OI that the magic of successful innovation starts to happen. And that is also where marketers need to get involved in a big way. Many failed product launches originate from a strategy of creating new products from existing or new technologies, and quickly pushing them out to customers—whether they're hungry for them or not.

It's time for Marketing to collaborate with company technologists on a creative, sustainable, and more deliberate approach to satisfying their customers.

Here's how to combine best practices in Design Thinking and OI to do so.

Launching a Program: Early Steps in the Design Thinking Sequence

Begin with a strategic opportunity analysis (SOA). Map out the technology landscape and explore answers to questions such as these:

  • I am interested in a new market space. What are the trends and barriers to entry?
  • I have strong IP on a technology. What are the other applications for it?
  • What are the emerging technologies that could disrupt the product in the future?

Plan. Write a design brief that focuses on a problem/opportunity, project scope, questions to explore, and target customers.

Research. This is your chance to inhabit your customers' world. Ethnographic research is among the most effective ways. Some techniques:

  • Have users write about, photograph, or video themselves using a product or service.
  • Behavioral archaeology: Discover clues about people's behavior and activities based on how a space is organized and where issues occur.
  • Ethnographic interviews: Encourage users to share stories of moving through a process, or using a product/service. Verbal and nonverbal cues will help you uncover their thoughts, emotions, and motivations.
  • Human guinea pig: Try out various products and services yourself. What do you really think?

Research like this will help uncover hidden gaps that may spell opportunity for your brand. For example, you might identify a product opportunity for a kitchen appliance by determining that what customers really dislike about the dishwashing experience is moving the same dishes back and forth from dishwasher to cupboard.

Ideate. From "brainwriting" (building on others' written ideas) to brainstorming, this is the time to turn insights into concepts. Supercharge this process by involving cross-functional experts from across your company and outside of your company. Start to develop concept briefs that home in on the needs you want to address, along with the capabilities you'll require to build your products. Let your imagination run wild, and force yourself to look outside for experts who can make the seemingly impossible happen.

Moving to Open Innovation

Prototype. Through these early steps, you've come up with several product ideas. How do you turn those ideas into quick prototypes to test? Step into the world of OI: Use technology searches to find solutions to incorporate into your development process from outside your established networks. With automakers adopting processes from dairy farmers, and appliance manufacturers zeroing in on technologies from candy companies, solutions can come from anywhere. The key is to write a good "need statement" that gets your requirements down to their essential core, and broadcast it to qualified experts. OI networks with highly skilled solution providers are a good place to start.

GE brought great things to life. GE, a big user of OI, saw an opportunity to do just that. It sponsored an innovation contest and found solutions for 3D printing of metal components for imaging machines and other products. Using another innovation contest, GE discovered solutions for more ergonomic circuit breaker handles, and by working with several external designers it was able to cut product development time in half.

With your OI searches successfully completed, your job now is to move into the prototyping phase, and quickly place "minimum viable products" into users' hands for testing and feedback.

Iterate and Win the Race

Open Design Thinkers should take a page from the playbook of Nike, which might test a bold new product in one country before rolling it out to a larger area. Test products both in-house and on the outside, get the kinks out, and release them again. Co-create more intricate versions with potential customers to ensure that they meet their needs.

Open Design Thinking puts marketers and technologists on equal footing in the quest to create breakthroughs—empowering them with insights into what their customers value and novel technology solutions to build on those insights.

Integrating a powerful Design Thinking mindset with a proven Open Innovation methodology addresses the need for speed while ensuring confidence that when you create, customers will buy.

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If You Create, Will They Buy? How to Go From Insights to Products Customers Want

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image of Andy Zynga

Andy Zynga, PhD, is CEO of NineSigma, a global innovation company that helped pioneer the practice of open innovation. Contact him at Zynga@ninesigma.com.

Twitter: @NineSigmaCEO

LinkedIn: A. M. (Andy) Zynga