What to Look For: Fresh Eyes, Not New Landscapes

How many times have you heard people say, “We’re looking for unarticulated needs”?  This has become a bit of a cliché, because it’s easy to say. But, how many of us really understand what this means? It’s like the image of the iceberg that we often use to illustrate the difference between what we see on the surface (articulated needs) and what lies underneath that we need to understand (unarticulated needs). What can we, as researchers involved in this kind of quest, do to approach this challenge methodically and creatively? Compensatory behavior, disintermediation, discontinuity and disequilibrium are great functional mental frameworks with which to approach an immersion experience.

As part of its Hunting for Hunting Grounds™ process (published in the PDMA Toolbook 1,  Chapter 2, John Wiley & Sons 2002), Innovation Focus identified ways to see with ‘fresh eyes’  when looking for unarticulated needs. We think of these ways as frameworks for ‘new seeing’ that can produce ‘new understanding’ and then ‘new thinking’ (actionable insights).  When doing both primary and secondary research, these frameworks are also useful for managing bias and assumptions by helping us to really see what’s there, not just what we expect to see. These functional frameworks can also help us find useful patterns from observation.

We have many research tools to aid in the discovery of unarticulated needs. These include technology audits, market trend audits, Delphi interviews (expert interviews) and ethnographies. These tools focus on consumers or on people not like us (e.g. the Amish) and on lead users (see the work of Eric von Hippel). All these tools will benefit from the application of the functional frameworks of compensatory behavior and disintermediation at the individual consumer level, and, of discontinuity and disequilibrium at the organization and systems level. So, how do these frameworks help us find unarticulated needs?

“Follow the duct tape!” more formally known as compensatory behavior, signals researchers to look for how consumers are currently solving problem. ‘Follow the duct tape,’ as a framework, helps us look for how consumers may be adapting to an unmet need. Typically, consumers gloss over (don’t articulate) the fact that they have a problem, because they have adapted and accept their current situation as the status quo. Observing with the compensatory behavior framework helps us actually see how many of us repurpose items of daily routine. In consumer settings we may also, literally, be following the duct tape. Maybe a product from one category is being used to do a task for which it was not designed. Maybe a consumer is cobbling together two or more products to resolve an unmet need. Is it any wonder that serial innovators often have grown up on farms where solutions were made from what was at hand – not by going to Wal-Mart or Lowes?  Just reflect on your own habits. How many of you either put up with inadequate solutions, because you don’t think there is anything better or have invented your own innovative solutions?

“You can’t do that!” signals the disintermediation framework. Disintermediation is a long word denoting when an established pattern is being broken. At the individual level, subconsciously we adapt and adopt new habits that become so much a part of our lives that we don’t articulate them. The proliferation of smart phones is an example. Do you remember the first time that you stopped using the phone book or asking for directions? Looking for disintermediation in consumer behaviors can help us anticipate what is next by better understanding personal trajectories.   Disintermediation at the individual consumer level is mirrored at the organizational level as discontinuity in a system pattern. Clearly, the internet and Wi-Fi has created all kinds of discontinuities in traditional patterns of commerce, such as online shopping. Many of these practices will go unarticulated by consumers, yet the astute observer will find commercial innovative opportunity from insights generated through the frameworks of disintermediation and discontinuity.

“You moved my cheese!” signals the disequilibrium framework. We all have value chains or, as we prefer to say, value networks.  When that suffers a disruption, positive or negative – such as the birth of a baby or the death of a parent, our lives are suddenly out of balance in ways that are sometimes difficult to articulate. Working to understand imbalance and its impact in our lives, the lives of our consumers, and in organizations and systems can help to identify opportunities for new products and services that have not yet percolated to the level of articulation. Using the disequilibrium framework will help us identify things that are out of balance and help us project that onto possible trajectories as springboards for recognizing unarticulated needs.

If finding unarticulated needs was easy, we may all be doing something else right now, other than reading this article.  But this work is exciting and compelling.   Often the key to our success is having the resources of time and team to do it.   As Georgette McCauley, former Director of R&D at Unilever said, “The company that rediscovers the time to think will have a significant competitive advantage.”

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