12 – limitations: user driven innovation

This section will enable you to critically reflect on user-driven innovation and to understand its limitations.

statement 1
In current innovation practice, there has been a shift from technology-driven innovation to user-driven innovation.
This is a very good thing. It’s much smarter to look carefully at what users need and to adapt your technology to that than to force your technology into the market.
Still, there is a catch to user-driven innovation: just as with the other drivers for innovation that were discussed previously in the book, the user doesn’t tell you what to do. Users can be great sources of inspiration for innovation, but how you react to these sources of inspiration is up to you. Again, this reaction is framed by your organisation’s culture, values, beliefs and norms. Even user-driven innovation needs the brand to interpret.

statement 2
Thus, the catch with user-driven innovation is that doing user research in itself doesn’t drive innovation. The research results will not be unique to your organisation. Another organisation, doing the same kind of research with the same users, may arrive at the same data. It’s what you do with the data, how you internalise it and interpret it based on your own values and norms, that turns ‘generic’ user data into your own user insights. And insights have the capacity to drive innovation.

statement 3
Next time you hear people talk about user driven
innovation, ask them if it’s the user that drove the innovation or if it was the organisation’s interpretation of that user.

Join in the discussion on the pros and cons of user-driven innovation by commenting below. Please share your own insights. I am curious what you think!

11 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. Team Synergize&Co

    If a company makes a user research and afterwards wants new insights for their products, they will probably select the data that are fitting their values. This of course, seems obvious, but if the point of spending time and money on user research is to have a real vision of what users want, treating this data is faking the results. Like saying to the company what they want to hear. The position of the company in this matter is very important, they can either stay in their already cosy known area or they can take risks, listen to the users insights staying as much as they can in their brand values.

    Balance between staying in their brand values they know, listening exactly to the user and their technology. Obviously, a company can’t only take in account users’ insights, there are much more matters involved in the design process.

    If the company really wants user driven innovation, this interpretation should be done very carefully, because looking into what a user really needs can give the company a very successful and outstanding product. User driven innovation has to be applied with great care, knowing which parties are involved in the wish of making something really user focused.

    We don’t have to forget the difference between the benefits that user research provides to a company and the implications of what user driven innovation means.

    As a conclusion, this could be used for a company that needs a completely change, new image, because currently the company is not working properly. Turn in it around implies taking a lot of risks, but that is the only thing a dying company can do. Listening to the users and gathering as much valid data as possible, can give to the company a very new track to follow, that might make survive the company.

    Oct 18, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

  2. EFCOM

    During this reflection, we identified some problems that can occur while using user-driven innovation. For example, research on users can be easily biased since users might want to satisfy the brand that is performing the research. In this sense, users’ research is used sometimes only for “justification” of the innovation of a company. Users are not a source of innovation because they cannot give clues for new developments. They can inspire but they are not the ones who will give the solutions. We also figured out that companies can be a bit shallow with their personas and just romanticise them by making Hollywood characters out of them which usually do not relate with the average user.

    It is different when there is co-creation of products, for example the creation of Wikipedia or the concept of products being developed based on some habits of users (eg. Peanut butter with chocolate inspired on people eating peanut butter with chocolate sprinkles). Of course it is not always the case that these examples are successful because there should be a large number of people participating and they should be motivated and selected in an effective way. It is also nice when these innovations come in a more natural way and not in a forced way like by questioning the users. Maybe in a more interactive way or through experiencing something like the example of the development of hashtags at Twitter.

    And last of all it is interesting to consider that some companies have a very strong opinion and rely on this opinion without looking at the users’ views / needs that much. Some examples of companies are Apple and Facebook. A metaphor for this case could be a person who chooses his clothes for himself and doesn’t ask for the opinion of his environment. In this case the person has a strong personality which usually attracts a lot of attention. A brand could be personalised in such an example of a self-secured person.

    Oct 23, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  3. Group 13 - Paper Planes

    If we compare user-driven innovation to design-driven innovation we can see a clear distinction between the use of users in the design process. The type of approach depends on the target you set for the innovation. It can either be radical or incremental. A company should have a portfolio with both incremental and radical product. Incremental innovations secure the company’s cash flow where radical innovations are needed to keep their position in the market. It is thus a strategic decision to innovate radical or incremental.

    User-driven innovation can be useful for incremental innovations. It enables companies to create products that are in line with the dominant language in the market, but in that sense are also very conservative [Verganti, 2009]. Incremental innovations are successful because people will always ask for an updated product language. But if a company only invests in incremental innovations it will not be very successful. Verganti (2009) says about this. “If all companies invest in incremental design and if all do it the same way using the same languages, design loses its power to differentiate one firm from the other.”

    Radical innovations on the other hand are not suited for user-driven innovation. Radical innovations focus on changing the meaning of things. Meanings that people do not know of or cannot imagine yet because they are new to the world. Users are not able to unveil these meanings to the designers directly. Ernesto Gismondi also made a very clear statement about user-centered innovation: “Market? What market? We do not look at market needs. We make proposals to people.” [stated on page 48 of Verganti, R., 2009, Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean, Harvard Business Press.] This statement also applies to involvement of users in testing of the concept “if a company tests a breakthrough change in meaning by relying on a typical focus group, people will search for what they already know. And they will not find it in a product that is radically innovative, unless they encounter it in the right scenario.”[stated on page 49 of Verganti, R., 2009, Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean, Harvard Business Press.] So this statement implies that users will most likely not even appreciate the radical innovation at first because it is different from what they are used to and therefore user-driven innovation is not suitable for radical innovation.

    If we conclude this we can say that user-driven innovation can be useful in creating incremental innovations. By closely following user needs they can create successful products that are fitting in the dominant language in the market. However companies should also invest in radical-innovations. Radical innovations are about making proposals to people, creating a new market. Therefor radical-innovations are not suited for user-driven innovation.

    Oct 25, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

  4. G3

    The fact that innovation has become more and more driven by the users instead of by technology, is a logical change. After all, the users are the ones to decide whether or not to use the innovation, so why not use their needs as a drive for the innovations.
    Within our group we discussed user driven innovation, this discussion was mainly based on a critical view on user-driven innovation. We believe that companies should not hold on too much to the ‘user needs’ that is, for users it is hard to define their actual needs. Users often say what’s wrong, and therefore their needs are based on experiences and expectations.
    Actually, designers are the ones making the decisions during the process of designing the innovation, and this way try to live up to the expectations of the users. These expectations are interpreted by the designers and are generalized into a potential user, for example by making personas or consumer journeys. We believe this is not the real need of the user, as it will always remain an interpretation. Therefore we think it is important to stay down to earth when defining the user or the user needs and in the end make the real users sense that the innovation was made for them. After all, between the user-research and the implementation of the innovation, the gap is somewhat fuzzy for the user. This is where the choices are being made, depending on the brand values and interpretations of the user needs.
    In implementing the innovations, on the one hand it is important to involve many different people, while on the other hand we think that too many people involved in that process can cause a mess, where people have different interpretations and ideas. Though, involving many people in the innovation can reduce the risk of a mess by combining brand value with the expertises.
    We can conclude that for user driven innovation it is very important to take a very close look at the information and keep in mind that the user need is mostly based on interpretations of the user needs and assess the brand value to implement an innovation. In the end, as long as the user has the feeling they drove the innovation, they are satisfied.

    Oct 25, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

  5. GROUP 18

    Within this consideration of user-driven innovation, it is important to see the distinction between user-driven innovation and user research that Roscam Abbing is making. User research is always part of (and even a base for) user-driven innovation. The user research is used as a driver for innovation, in which we can find a lot of strong points. We share the opinion of Verganti (Design-driven Innovation) where he states that customers/users don’t actually know what they want or need in the future. This does not necessarily implicate that user research is useless, as Steve Jobs is often quoted. This merely implies that it the user is not necessarily direct input for the innovation process, but needs consideration before using it as a driver for innovation. We agree with Roscam Abbing on the fact that the raw data from user research needs interpretation in order to be able to use it as a driver for innovation.

    It of course seems dangerous to ‘treat the data’ as TeamSynergize&Co is stating. But as is shown in the lectures by Pieter Jan Stappers (3rd and 10th of October 2011), raw data is never a mere result. The results need to be applicable to your brand and need to be used as an input for the next innovation phase. It is not about faking results, it is about applying results to your company and brand. As Roscam Abbing states ‘the research results will not be unique to your organization’ and will therefore give you no sustainable competitive advantage within the competitive field.

    According to us, this dilemma of interpretation and generalization of data is pre-eminently a great example of showing the strengths and opportunities of ‘design thinking’. Design thinking abilities such as abduction (as mentioned in the talk on design synthesis by Jon Kolko of Frog Design) and the application of raw data to a brand can show a lot of value in such determining processes. Easily said, this is the power of a designer.

    Oct 25, 2011 @ 11:48 pm

  6. leCON7

    We agreed that there were advantages of the user driving innovation but such innovation still needs the brand to succeed. User needs can be articulated (know wants or needs) or unarticulated (unknown wants or needs)(Hamel and Prahalad, 1994). According to Hamel & Prahalad it is easy to find the articulate needs, as the users are able to express these. The articulate needs have to be fulfilled for a product to succeed. However, the unarticulate needs users have are the valuable data companies have to look for; it is the unexpected that gets users exited and these needs have to be targeted to be able to differentiate from your competitors.
    Finding these unarticulate needs cannot be done through straightforward user-research, interpretation of consumer behaviour is needed. Interpretation of this data creates inspiration and direction, which can help create an innovation roadmap.
    A different study, performed by Lynn et al. (1997) concludes that the reason that U.S. firms have lost marketshare to Japanese technology-driven firms during the 80s due to the fact that U.S. management used user-research to reduce risk, which also caused a huge reduction in discontinuous innovations. Japanese firms on the other hand connected new technology to market opportunities and leapfrogged the U.S. firms.
    In conclusion, a company needs to have knowledge of their users, yet has to form their own vision of the future, as users often do not know how the future will be. The company needs to find values and beliefs of their users and apply these in determining their strategies and directions.

    Oct 27, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  7. Paradox 20

    Traditionally, user-driven companies evaluate their already existing product by interviewing their customers. In this way they get an insight in the customers wishes concerning adaptions of the current product. Customers are not encouraged to think outside the box. This way of doing research will always lead to incremental changes.

    A trend that is taking place is that more and more companies start user-driven innovation in order to get insights in their customers’ daily life and the influence of their product in this. This is because the companies start to realize that with the traditional research method you will keep thinking between the borders of the possibilities of your current products, instead of thinking in the wide possibilities of innovation within the large borders of your brand identity.

    We think this broader and more free way of user-driven research will lead to much more usable insights which enables the company to innovate in a progressive way, which will allow them to distance themselves from their competitors.

    A remark that has to be placed is that the company needs to be very open to possible innovations that result from the insights that initially do not stroke with their production or logistic processes or even to their current business strategy, and unfortunately this is not always the case.

    Besides brand-driven, user-driven and technology-driven innovation, also design-driven innovation is used. This way of innovating focuses on changing the meaning of things with totally new-to-the-world products and therefore leads to radical changes (Verganti, R., 2009, Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean, Harvard Business press.). We think if a company wants to make a new-to-the-world product, the best approach is to be design-driven. Even the more open way of applying user-driven innovation will not help to achieve this.

    An issue we also discussed is the question whether the purpose of the product is actually interpreted by the customer in the way the company wants, due to for example social, environmental or technical changes. This is another reason why user-driven innovation can be very important in some cases; to be able to notice and respond to those kinds of changes.
    An example of this ‘misinterpretation’ is leather ware. The original purpose was to make something warm that lasts long, but due to cultural changes leather products became a fashion item.
    We figured that changes in purpose are mainly happening with fast moving consumer good companies, rather than hi-tech good companies, since it is much harder to misinterpret technology than FMCG-goods.

    Oct 28, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  8. The TwentyONEs

    12 – limitations: user driven innovation

    ‎1) The limitation of user research techniques: Although the current techniques are improving at times, but it’s never to say what we saw is what it is. Like observation it is hard to observe the natural behavior when the objects know you are observing them.

    2) The limitation of users itself: Users are used to be pushed by the technology, usually they do not have the insight of the future technology, like the famous example of Ford, users always tell you they want a faster horse, and it’s hard to predict their reactions. Such innovation as Apple did, they pushed new technology to the users and succeed, but you cannot get the idea of new technology directly from the users them self.

    3) The limitation of interpretation: Users have multi-layer of needs, researchers are easily stuck with the basic need (like they always want more choices) as the basic needs are more visible and obvious, but ignore the higher-level of needs (like desire to feel respect), it’s a gap between know the needs and truly interpret them. Somehow we find out not all the needs of user will have the business potential, actually users have combined drives for purchasing a product (like apple, they don’t buy it because it is the most useful product), so it’s crucial for the company to decide which combination of needs they want to realize in their incoming product will ensure success.

    4) The limitation of innovation group: Thus, from the contents mentioned before, we find no matter how great the method or techniques are, they cannot ensure success if the group don’t have certain qualities like ability to foresee and being holistic, so it depend a lot on the group as well as leader’s characters.

    the TwentyONEs

    Nov 02, 2011 @ 11:12 am



    User centered design has proven to be the most ethic approach given so far to product design. This type of approach has also its limitations regarding the process of design itself. Users are not consciously aware of their dreams and desires. These are often expressed in a tacit way with raw data. It is the job of researcher to interpret it and communicate it efficiently to the design team. The use of design research, ethnography and its different tools only represent half of the work needed. Even if gathering of data is done in a proper way, the result of this process relies on the ability and the experience of the researchers to cluster data, and make tacit relations to move along the different layers. The ability to analyze data and translate it into knowledge is the keystone of this process.

    Another important limitation is the involvement of experts in different areas of expertise. This highlights the importance of the creation of common understanding. If this is not achieved, the message from the research department is misinterpreted within the different areas of the design team. Once this information is synthesized it permeates different levels of the organization and influences strategic corporate decisions.

    On the other hand during the design process of user centered products, designers often lose track of different constraints. Managers often base their final decisions on market and cost feasibility. This narrows the possibility of delivering a 100% human centered solutions.

    Nov 04, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

  10. Group 02

    User Driven innovation – is is really the user that drives the innovation of the perception of the user?

    First off all we want to state that user driven innovation often is better described as user guided innovation. In a lot of products they say the have performed innovation driven by the user (of his/her needs). However we think that innovation is in those cases guided by the users needs rather than driven. It has been common in design practice to include the user in your design, and it has been for quite a time. But as time progresses the markets has changed and made the user more and more important; let us give an example:

    The computer business has long been driven by technology and each technological innovation would offer a huge leap in the product innovation. The individual products were very different; all with their own pro’s and con’s. But over time the innovation leaps became smaller and smaller. Up until the point that all the products in the market -even the ones with ‘old technology’ – fulfill almost all user’s needs (early majority, late majority and laggards). They all have webcams, can run all software available (some exceptions) and generally new computers do not add a lot more in terms of functionality.This means that product will have to differentiate in a different way. One of the options is, logically, improving the user experience. This then leads to more investigation in users in general and thus in the claim that some innovations were ‘user driven’.

    Furthermore we think that ‘real’ user driven innovation is more along the lines of co-creation. Integrating the user into the design process at early stages as an member of the multidisciplinary design team. Or sometimes in a more shallow way in the form of ‘user-generated-content’ that is responsible for the success of a product. An example could be Dell with their back-end forum. Dell users fora where people can discuss together with dell engineers about new products; this goes further then just user need because they are integrated in the design/discussion.

    Another example would be Lego. Since some years Lego has a service called ‘Design by me’ which enables user to digitally build Lego models (nothing really innovating so far) and share them with others. Added to that is the service to have Lego make a building kit out of your model and send it to you; essentially facilitating you to create your own lego set/box. The next innovative step in the system is to make all online build kit publicly available (for viewing and buying) via a Lego social network. If a model is frequently ordered within this social network it can be ordered online as an ordinary -Lego design – Lego building kit. This we think is ultimate user driven innovation since the whole service would not work without the users designing lego models. If you provide the user with the right tools and they will take their part within your brand innovation.

    [img]http://www.branddriveninnovation.com/wp-content/Screen shot 2011-11-04 at 19.01.46.png[/img]

    Nov 04, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

  11. Group 11

    Though user driven innovation has its benefits, it also has its limitations. The biggest limitation is better expressed as a risk. User-driven innovation is based on analyzing users and interpreting that analysis. Here lies the risk to make decisions that are subjective or biased by the designer. When interpreting the analysis wrongly, a faulty design will be the result. Because there is no given road on how to interpret, it is up to the designers how to tackle such an assignment. Every company will interpret the gained data in a different way. The designers must come up with a design that suits both user and the brand.

    Another limitation is that people can tell you what they want, but they are often unaware what they really want or they lack the knowledge what is possible. Simply asking the consumer what they is useless, because they do not know what they want(Ulwick , 2002). If the company would just simply make what the user asks for, the user would not be surprised by the design. It is the company’s task and in the companies best interest to take the design to a higher level and unravel the ‘why’ behind the needs, to find out the added value to the needs of the users. The user doesn’t know what the future has to offer and so he/she doesn’t know what their needs will be. Another important thing to consider is how users will change over time; the user of today is not the user of tomorrow, for example in twenty years time, elderly might be totally adapted to touch screens.

    Despite these limitations we think it is very useful to listen to the consumer, since it gives great opportunities for NPD and decreases the risk to solve non-existing problems. Luckily, there are many different research methods to conduct customer research, which all have specific benefits and limitations. We think it is necessary that companies master different methods, in order to generate both small product improvements (re-design) as well as to uncover the ‘latent needs’ (for breakthrough inventions), that really satisfy customer needs.

    Nov 08, 2011 @ 4:59 pm


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about this blog
this is Erik Roscam Abbing's blog on topics relating to the synergy between branding, innovation and design. Erik is a consultant (www.zilverinnovation.com), teacher (www.io.tudelft.nl), and frequent speaker on the topic of Brand Driven Innovation. He is also the author of the book by the same title, to appear in autumn 2010 at www.avabooks.ch. For inquiries, contact erik at erik at zilverinnovation.com
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