How Customers Help Identify Your Next Products

24 Apr 2017
Louis Corso

Customers can be your greatest innovators.

Customers are great at finding new uses for existing products. My favorite example is Arm and Hammer baking soda. The product has been around for 160-plus years. Look at how many new uses have been developed in the last 20 or so: baking soda toothpaste, laundry detergent, air freshener, household cleaner, etc. These new products emerged from innovations that customers made well before the company packaged the product for those specific uses.

Modified versions of products have been around for years to meet specific needs. As long as there have been products produced en masse, there have been modified versions to fit specific applications. Many new products have their roots based in this very method of product improvement.

Eric von Hippel is a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Von Hippel argues, “ideas for new or improved products come first from users who develop improvised versions to serve their own needs.” These users are often experts in their respective fields.

However, in another article, von Hippel extolls the virtues of the consumer innovator. This time it is not the “experts” who have a voice in developing new products, it is the ordinary consumer.

The consumer innovator study was performed in three markets: US, UK, and Japan. It eliminated false positives (where the modification was not modified at all but merely a new purchase). What the study found in each of the three markets was the same: There was a large population who had modified a product to fit a specific use. It makes perfect sense—add a handle to extend its reach, drill a hole and attach a string to make it easy to hang up, make it stronger, make it resistant to heat, waterproof it.

What happens after consumers innovate?

The consumer innovator study goes on to show that, while most innovations made do not get adopted by other consumer innovators, a significant number do, and few people protected their innovations with intellectual property rights.

What did we learn?

In three different markets we see consumer innovation, and we can assume that consumer-innovators in other markets also modify products to match their particular needs.

It is clear that challenges in Japan are going to be different from challenges in the US and from those in the UK. The markets vary greatly in many ways. For example, the average size of a house in Japan is 1420 sq. ft., and it’s smaller still in the UK at 818 sq. ft. In contrast, the largest homes are in Australia and the US at 2310 sq. ft. and 2170 sq. ft., respectively. The amount of space in a home will affect consumer needs, which then affects how consumers modify household products.

It stands to reason that consumers will have different issues in different environments, as well.  Temperature, humidity, and topography  present unique challenges that have to be overcome. Different products will be used to suit those fundamental differences in needs.

On top of those basic material differences are numerous layers of cultural differences. And over time, in each market, needs and preferences change.

What should brands do?

Change happens. Customers want to be heard and brands need to open channels of communication so they can consistently listen. Simple, right? Brands need to be transparent in their efforts to take in good data and be willing to give a little something in return to consumers for supplying good data.  Being transparent means showing consumers where their input goes for consideration and where in the process their information is injected.

The more that companies open their processes to outside information, the more quality information they will receive. However, it is not enough for brands to say they are open. Brands must be willing to show performance: How long did it take to act on a suggestion that was made by thousands of users? What did you do to keep the consumer informed? How did the brand reward those consumers’ loyalty?

Brands that listen to consumers and are willing to quickly align to their customers’ preferences and needs are the ones that will succeed.


Eric Von Hipple’s material is a great place to find out more (see sources below).

In my experience, product innovation comes at particular events in a people’s lives when they are faced with new situations (e.g.,  marriage, children, house vs. apartment, etc.). New circumstances spark new needs (or slightly changed needs) for new products not encountered prior to the event with any degree of regularity.  What do you think? Leave comments and begin a conversation.


Eric Von Hipple (MIT Sloan)


Average Household Size



Subscribe for Blog Updates

Leave a Reply