In his undergraduate Product Innovation course, Professor Joseph Guiltinan allows his students to experience firsthand the origins of innovative offerings in the marketplace. In a 3-step project, his students practice identifying consumer problems with current offerings, reporting these in a meaningful and useful way, and then connecting them into a more comprehensive picture of the underlying issues that allow room for product improvement. The learning objectives of this project are two-fold: students gain experience in using qualitative research methods through observation in the real marketplace, and also how to effectively communicate consumer problems to product designers through a set of language guidelines.
Preparing the Shopping List
As background for the first stage of the field assignment, Prof. Guiltinan illustrates to his students the importance of conducting observational research accurately and comprehensively. “Consumers often fail to verbalize problems that they have with existing products,” he says. “But companies still need to be able to identify unmet consumer needs. That is what the students are learning how to do here.”
In preparation for the second stage, Prof. Guiltinan provides his students with guidelines on “the language of report”—a key to the purpose and success of the project. To teach his students how to use the most accurate language in describing a problem, Prof. Guiltinan uses the Language Processing Method, a technique developed at the Center for Quality of Management in Cambridge, Mass.. This instruction provides three main principles for reporting: 1) avoid making judgments and drawing conclusions or inferences; 2) avoid confusing causes or failed solutions with the actual problem; and 3) report issues at the lowest level of abstraction (i.e. with precise details).
After the students become familiar with the LPM, Prof. Guiltinan puts them through a trial run of reporting. With his assistance, the students are challenged to “scrub” each others’ problems reports—or critique them on the extent to which they meet the requirements of the language of report. After refining the scrubbed statements, the students then practice aggregating these statements into a larger, logical picture of the sets of problems and their interrelationships.
Shopping for Toys… or Problems?
Now prepared with the tools needed for the actual project, each student must individually visit a toy store and observe adults while they shop for toys. Students are instructed both to watch and listen to the shoppers, taking special note of clues that would aid in accurately reporting a problem; more specifically, students want to take into account any verbal statements made, any tools used in the shopping process (e.g. shopping cart), and any interaction with things or people (e.g. reading a package or chasing children).
These observations then culminate in a list of answers to the question, “What problems do adults experience in the process of shopping for toys?” When formulating these answers, the student’s employment of the language of report is imperative “Students need to understand problems in a way that leaves open the possibility of an innovative solution,” Prof. Guiltinan says of why this reporting technique is so important to practice and develop. “We want to be able to translate problems into business opportunities.”
The students then return with their findings and collectively organize them into a meaningful picture that lends to possibilities for innovation.
Shopping for Solutions
After individually completing the steps of observation, reporting, and aggregating with the toy market, students then form groups and repeat the entire process for a product category of their choosing. The goal of this second round is to lay the groundwork for identifying new product opportunities—a direct simulation of how this 3-step process is applied in the real business world.
To be successful in this assignment, students must be able to agree upon the meaning and importance of the consumer problems they have identified. This requires detailed observation and accurate reporting, as well as the ability to translate initial findings into a more complete view of existing problems and potential solutions. They will then have the foundation needed to redesign current offerings to better meet consumer needs.
“This is how well-established firms become successful at bringing product innovations to the market,” says Prof. Guiltinan on the value of this project for his students as future business professionals. And the students have recognized this value, too—“They feel they are better able to define problems in a way that these problems can be effectively communicated to those in the best position solve them.” In the end, this pathway to product innovation proves to be a win-win-win situation—for the consumer, the researcher, and the designer.
Article written by Alexandria Miller
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