Asking customers for feedback is good, but observing them is often a much more productive source of breakthrough product ideas, according to Paul Sloane.

Customers can be an important source of innovative ideas. But you can’t obtain these breakthrough ideas by simply asking customers what they want or need.

Many companies conduct conventional customer surveys and focus groups. These are useful channels of feedback, but in terms of original ideas they are often disappointing. Customers are good at demanding incremental improvements in products, lower prices and better service but they are notoriously poor at predicting significant new products or innovations to meet their needs. Before the fax machine was invented, who would have predicted that he needed it? Which wearer of spectacles in the 1950s would have said that she wanted a lens to put on her eyeball or laser surgery to reshape his eye?

You can expect customers to tell you that they want more of what you offer and they want it better, faster and cheaper. But do not count on them to tell you about new or different ways to meet their needs.

Divining customer needs

A more lateral approach to gain insights from customers is to study in detail how they use your type of product or service and to observe what practical problems they have.

Fluke Corporation of Seattle is noted for innovative hand-held measurement products. One breakthrough innovation came because Fluke sent teams of observers to watch maintenance engineers in chemical plants. They discovered that the engineers had to carry a variety of different instruments to calibrate different temperature and pressure gauges. They also noticed that after taking the calibration measurement the engineer would write the readings on a clipboard and then transcribe them into a computer. The process was time-consuming and prone to errors. Fluke therefore designed a new product that used flexible software to allow it to calibrate any gauge in the chemical plant. It also recorded the results, which could be directly downloaded to the engineer’s computer. The resulting product was the Fluke Document Process Calibrator, which became a great success.

Haier is a leading Chinese manufacturer of white goods such as freezers and cookers. Its engineers in rural China were surprised to find that people were using Haier washing machines to wash the vegetables they had grown in their gardens. Turning this unexpected use into a new application, the Haier development team came up with a new wash cycle designed specifically for vegetables. On another occasion, a sharp-eyed engineer saw that a student had placed a plank between two Haier fridges to form a makeshift desk. The company responded by designing a fridge with a fold-out desktop – ideal for small rooms that need an extra table or desk top.


Asking customers for feedback is good, but observing them is often much more productive. If you want to gain a march on the competition and design the products and services of the future, watch your customers carefully. Look for the areas of unexpected use, the headaches and problems that are begging to be solved or the unusual combinations of needs or uses. They can give you the insights you need to generate successful innovations in products, services and processes.

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation (, consultancy that helps organizations improve innovation and leadership.  His book, the Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, is published by Kogan-Page.