Anyone has the raw capability to think of a great idea, but not everyone has the ability to bring ideas to fruition. It’s a process that requires vision, a strong handle on industry trends (both present and future) and risk takers willing to champion seemingly impossible feats. Most companies have innovators or teams of innovators with these qualities, but many don’t incorporate both customer feedback and customer observational research as key components for designing the next generation of product development. This article will explore the benefits of leveraging a customer-centric model to create more innovative, user-friendly devices that provide the support customers really need.

As head of the Motorola Solutions global Innovation & Design organization, my role (some would label it a calling) is to make sense of a complex and shifting environment of technologies, market forces and evolving customer needs which are impacting our businesses and customers. While this can sometimes seem like an insurmountable task, it’s one at which we’re very good.

Leading a team of exceptionally skilled designers, technologists and customer researchers working to envision new, breakthrough product systems is a very exciting journey. Our quest is not for the next shiny object that will lead a new consumer smartphone craze. I imagine those efforts are being pursued by other companies. Instead, it’s about how Motorola Solutions can deliver the next 20 percent productivity improvement for enterprises; or bring new situational awareness and broadband communications capabilities to first responders; or facilitate the seamless, secure handoff of critical patient information between an ambulance and a hospital to save precious seconds – and lives.

We measure our success by theirs, and it takes an organizational “village” to get it right.

We rely on the insights behind insights to fuel our development process. Informed intuition centered on a deep understanding of our customers’ needs and the fullest understanding of how we can push our technologies to the highest edges of performance to satisfy them. This heritage of innovation is stitched into the very fabric of Motorola Solutions’ rich history, 80 years and counting. It’s our goal and privilege to protect our users and improve our customers’ work efforts; to help them be the best at what they do every day. We measure our success by theirs, and it takes an organizational “village” to get it right.

Organizational Structure as a Forcing Function

Great ideas come from multiple directions. They can evolve from an existing product or technology framework, customer feedback, executive vision, internal champions or industry trends. While all of these certainly influence the development of successful products, it is what you do with these insights that matter. We have learned over time and experience to approach things a bit differently.

Our development process begins and ends with immersive customer research led by our multi-disciplined Innovation & Design team. It’s the glue that helps us evolve products and deliver continuity into production. We don’t simply ask customers what they think of product ideas or what they need to be more informed and effective; we perform observational research side-by-side with them to see for ourselves. We put on their uniforms, participate in fire and SWAT training and ride along as they complete routes and respond to emergencies. We observe what they do and how they do it. We do this to better understand their challenges and entire business operations; and then identify opportunities to innovate around them – to make them better, safer and more efficient. Through years of conducting this type of research, we’ve learned that sometimes what our customers say they need represents only a small part of what they really need; to achieve that next level of safety or productivity. This is where customer understanding and insights lead to innovation.

The cross-functional Innovation & Design team is comprised of a variety of mixed disciplines. In working with our customers, we engage multiple team members to leverage diverse expertise – including those of industrial and interaction design, human factors engineering, cognitive psychology, physical and cultural anthropology,  etc. – to look at all aspects of how our customers work. We involve engineers and product teams in the discovery process as well. It’s in the cultivation of the collective insights each team member brings that the true magic happens; and how organizational alignment – and passion – ignites.

Championing a Holistic, Integrated Systems Approach to Innovation

Process innovation can lead to product innovation. And more often than not, design helps lead the way. We work with business and engineering to innovate not just at the product level, but on a system level, ultimately innovating around both. Our business approach is unique. The role we play within Motorola Solutions doesn’t fit the typical purview of a design team. Using the knowledge gleaned from thousands of hours on the job with customers, brainstorming, prototyping and decades of design expertise, we formulate strategy models that influence product and service roadmaps and potentially disrupt existing business thinking.

We advocate for our customers. When a customer identifies a challenge they are having, we consider all of the factors that surround that issue. For example, our devices are highly survivable, lasting years of continued use. When battery life began popping up as a productivity problem for one large customer, we investigated. After extensive research and observation, we learned that they had no easy way to determine the age of batteries in their spare pool. So instead of going back to the product team with an “ask” – to build a bigger, longer-lasting battery – we looked instead at the customer’s battery distribution process. We constructed flow charts capturing battery life and use and created prototypes. The end result? We designed an intelligent battery management system that provides state of health and charge information with a press of a button – and delivers better optics for device managers on the overall health of their system. So instead of designing a bigger battery, we conceived a different way to manage batteries, providing all our customers with a better overall device management solution.

Reporting directly to the CTO, we have the luxury of operating in a business-neutral position astride all of the corporate businesses.

Being part of a large corporation can sometimes pose challenges, with silos of business and technical insight that are locked within a particular area of the company. Reporting directly to the CTO, we have the luxury of operating in a business-neutral position astride all of the corporate businesses. This allows us to take an insight from one side of the business and influence other areas, while bringing best demonstrated practices to the table to create future-proofed, cross-business strategies.

This was the case when we realized the compact vertical, multi-device charging solution we developed for enterprise customers would also solve similar space and productivity challenges for public safety customers. In fact, our research revealed many were spending thousands of dollars on shelves and customer furniture to accomplish similar business objectives. Using our team as a forcing function, we helped bring the solution to the public safety market, strengthening customer relationships in the process.

Working closely with product engineering and business teams, our group has evolved a holistic “systems approach” in conceiving innovative products as well as the software interfaces, applications, accessories and services that surround them. From the insights gained in working alongside our customers, we focus on end-to-end solutions – optimizing our devices in their primary use which is protecting officers and the public or optimizing business operations along with how these systems are provisioned, updated and maintained. In this manner, we are able to demonstrate a significant return on investment for our customers.

This is definitely a unique view for a “design team.” Future-proofing customer investments are particularly important in the government and public safety arena where funding remains a challenge.

Bringing Broadband Data to First Responders

Two of the most important assets public safety can take advantage of include relevant information and reliable communications. The ability to access up-to-date information to the right resources at the right time is critical to helping save time, lives and keeping communities safe. Conceiving and configuring a mission-critical device to accommodate the range of functions required by varying roles, as well as meeting the expectations of different generations of users is just the kind of challenge that makes the development of these products unique. We believe that developing products and systems on which people’s lives are potentially reliant upon is the most serious and sobering of job requirements and deserves only our best efforts and focus.

Leveraging the power of mobile broadband in mission-critical spaces is something we’ve been studying for years. Our researchers have been working in the field globally for more than two years, evaluating the potential impact of data on the world of first responders – what they could do differently if they had the ability to leverage rich data with devices that supported mission-critical functionality. In fact, it was in our evaluation of data use that allowed us to identify features and functionality that would bring mission-specific content to users – and a future-proof device design that would support added capabilities without any design changes. In every respect, we architect our customers into the design process.

This shift in thinking required a more thorough understanding of the complex challenges and systems that accompany the integration of mobile broadband for public safety communications. Officers still need reliable voice coverage for routine and major incidents.  However, access to data and multimedia is now equally as important, particularly at a time when criminals are getting more sophisticated by using advanced technology to plan, execute and synchronize their actions. Public safety officers need devices that help them do more with less.

Purpose-Built Innovation for the Demands of the Street

The need for secure broadband capabilities in a mission critical context is new. With nothing to compare capabilities to other than personal experience, it was difficult for customers to tell us what features and functionality they needed most to do their job more effectively. From our multi-year research, it was clear to see how access to the right information at the right time, delivered in an appropriate mission-critical form factor could make their rapidly evolving duties easier. But we didn’t want to add complexity by putting yet another device to manage in their hands or on their belts. We wanted to give them a device designed to intelligently integrate radio and broadband communications together – a way to make their jobs easier while helping to keep them safe.

Through rich dialogue, brainstorming and numerous prototypes, we transformed ideas into physical form to test their viability. This allowed us to define other important needs – a rugged, easy-to-use form factor, hot swappable battery, mobile solutions that allow officers to access and control video cameras, operate the device in covert mode and support applications that make it easier to input and send data and reports from the field. By representing the voice of the customer with product and engineering teams, we identified what’s important today and the future-proof hook points for accessories and mission-specific applications they will need tomorrow.

Our public safety customers need predictability and reliability. They need products that work the same way every day, so they can keep their attention on the situation around them. If an officer is in pursuit or a gun is pulled, he or she doesn’t have the time to stop, enter a pin to login and call up an app to access push-to-talk or other data functionality. They need purpose-built, intelligence they don’t have to think about. And that’s what we strive to give them.

The Power of Zero Degrees of Separation

Immersive customer research and the quiet insights that come with it, allow companies to recognize new possibilities and when important shifts have occurred even before they do. In 2011, we conducted more than 260 unique customer research engagements. We strongly believe voice of customer research isn’t enough. You need to understand how your customers work in the field and in the operations center, from the moment they arrive to when they leave the office. Opportunities to innovate exist everywhere and often where no one is looking. As a design team, we look at operations holistically, capturing critical inputs and using them to envision entirely new products and services.

If you listen and watch carefully, customers will demonstrate exactly what they want and need. Sometimes, however, they can’t “tell you” what they need. It is in this gray area we dive deep to derive those critical insights. We look for solutions for problems our customers don’t yet know they have and solve them with technology they didn’t think possible. That’s how we design with customer innovation in mind.

By Curt Croley

 About the author

Curt Croley is senior director of Innovation & Design at Motorola Solutions. He oversees a group of global designers, researchers and technologists who are responsible for indentifying future trends and bringing their visions to practice through highly-differentiated product designs for mission-critical communication solutions for enterprise and government customers. In his 13 years at Motorola, he has been issued 47 patents with 12 pending. Throughout his career, Curt has periodically captured his professional experience and leveraged these insights in educating hundreds of design students as an adjunct professor at several universities and design schools. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Design from Kent State University.