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As uncomfortable as it may be for some researchers to admit, Steve Jobs was onto something when he said: "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them."

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't do market research. Nor does it even mean that Apple doesn't include research in their product planning and development. It's just that Apple doesn't directly ask the consumer to come up with product ideas.

When it comes to new ideas, you need to be careful about the kind of questions you ask consumers:

  • First, consumers often don't understand their own behavior well enough to come up with ideas or even comment on what kind of product or service would change their behavior. This is particularly true in low involvement categories - those low-cost or no-cost products or services you don't give much thought to but engage in out of habit (the local TV newscast you watch every night) or sheer impulse (the flavor of gum you pick up at the drug store).
  • Second, it can be difficult for consumers to comment on concepts or products for which they have no frame of reference - a whole new product category, for example.
  • Third, few consumers are creative geniuses or have been trained in design. If you ask them a question related to design or creativity, they'll give you an answer. It's just that it might have absolutely nothing to do with what would motivate them and other consumers like them to try your product.

Instead, the focus on testing new ideas or creative concepts should fall into the following two buckets:

    1. Make sure you have a baseline understanding of the consumer before generating ideas. How do consumers behave in the category? How do they feel about the products and services they use now? What kind of insights can provide a springboard to creativity and innovation? Maybe you know the answers to these questions before you get started. If you don't, you need some baseline research.
    2. After you have generated some ideas, test and - most important - refine. Give consumers a clear description of the concept or, better yet, a prototype. Then listen closely to what consumers say. Often, it's not whether they like or dislike the idea that matters but what they say about it that allows you to refine and move forward. Instead of go/no go, think about what the testing tells you about how the idea could be improved. And keep refining the product or service once it gets to market.

Steve Jobs' secret is not that you shouldn't use research, but rather if you ask a stupid question, you should expect to get stupid answers. Lead with design and ask smart questions. You win and so does the consumer.

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