Customer research and consumer delight

Customer research and consumer delight

This article is part of THNK VIEWS. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners from a rich database of research papers. This article builds on Philippe Duverger’s research Variety is the Spice of Innovation: Mediating Factors in the Service Idea Generation Process and discusses customer research and consumer delight.


For years, market researcher Howard Moskowitz frantically ran around shouting, “there is no perfect pasta sauce. There are only perfect pasta sauces!” before someone at Campbell Soup finally listened to him. Together, they would end up disrupting the entire food industry. What did Moskowitz mean?


He figured out what consumers wanted.

customer research
Disrupt your industry by finding out what your customers want. Click To Tweet

Unmet consumer needs are considered the holy grail of product and service innovation: a mystical, sacred entity with unlimited value and powers for those that know how to tap into it. It would seem that with present day digitalization and social media, it is easier to connect to users everywhere through online surveys, platforms, and data mining technology. Moving from a mass-producing economy to one based on individually tailored products suggests that the gap between consumer needs and producer response are closely aligned. Yet the mystique surrounding unmet user needs remains: the recent study by Philippe Duverger shows that the gap between customers and product developers continues to exist. The study reiterates the need to find effective ways to include customers in product and service creation to secure future innovation, and warns that if companies fail to do so, business will suffer. Duverger’s key findings suggest that:

  • Consumers seeking variety are most likely to have the most innovative ideas, but will also switch services easily.
  • When combined with enough technical knowledge and resources, these users will be able to create the products and services that will satisfy their unmet needs.
  • To secure future business prosperity, greater attention should be given to finding new ways to appeal to these users, and find their unmet consumer needs.

Indeed, the need to include consumers and users into product and business design is clear, yet we continue to argue that people often do not know what they really want, really need, or are really missing. As the first car manufacturer Henry Ford once said, “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”  This does not mean that consumers should not be involved in product design — they should be. The real crux for product and service innovators is not to hear what consumers are telling you, but to dream up products that consumers did not even realize they were craving.

customer research
The real crux for product and service innovators is not to hear what consumers are telling you, but to dream up products that consumers did not even realize they were craving. Click To Tweet

High death rates among premature born babies are a big problem in India. Initially, it was presumed that baby incubators were too expensive for families and hospitals to afford, so hospitals and product developers worked together to design lower-cost incubators targeted for developing markets. Yet after conducting more thorough research on user experience by immersing themselves with the families, they realized that the problem wasn’t that simple. Costs were not the problem —access to hospitals was. Indian mothers living rural areas delivered at home and could not reach hospitals in time.

Indian mothers were asking for baby incubators but instead were helped by low-cost infant sleeping bags that helped keep their premature babies alive. Embrace Warmer is a simple, portable infant sleeping bag heated with a wax-like substance that remains at body temperature for hours. This well-known success case of design thinking is often attributed to “customer intimacy”: being close to the user. But notice, when asked, mothers and doctors could not have given the solution as at-home incubators in the form of infant warmers did not yet exist.

customer research
A well-known example of design thinking is customer intimacy: being close to the user. Click To Tweet

The hardship is that people often do not know what they want or need if they have never seen it. Design thinking puts users at the core center of innovative product and service development. It is about immersing yourself into someone else’s world to come up with new ideas. Immersion allows for the user experience of products and services, and the ability to envision and develop new products to improve user’s lives —to great customer delight. It is about observing your customers through real-life user journeys, portraits, and interviews to gain empathy and become aware of latent, unarticulated needs. In doing so, you collect all the unexpected treasures and insights that will help you look at the problem from new, original angles, thereby creating possible solution spaces. It is up to innovators to embrace this and build on it.

Consider Kyoto’s famous Zen garden, Ryoan-ji, the perfectly designed rock gardens with a unique positioning of the stones. If you were to get a bird’s eye view of garden, you would see that it contains 14 stones. Yet you will never see this by being a mere observer sitting beside the garden or walking around it. The positioning of the rocks is meant to reminds us that you think you see everything, you may think you see the world as it is, but upon closer inspection, from a different angle, things aren’t what they first appeared to be. There are always things hidden, uncovered only by looking at them from a different angle and perspective.

Innovation is all about looking at things from different angles and perspectives by using your unique perspective as an immersed outsider. This is how you get from immersing into consumer experience to creating consumer delight.

customer research
Innovation is all about looking at things from different angles and perspectives. This is how you go from creating a consumer experience to creating consumer delight. Click To Tweet

No one knows this better than Howard Moskowitz. He spent years trying to find the perfect spaghetti sauce, until he realized there is no such thing. Even after organizing dozens of tastings, in-company focus groups, and user feedback surveys throughout the United States, he came no closer to figuring out what they truly wanted. Some customers wanted spice, other preferred plain or somewhere in between. Then he discovered that some consumers spoke about some of the trial products as “extra chunky” and really liked these. While plain and spicy sauce could be found in supermarkets, no one sold extra-chunky pasta sauce. Fast-forward 10 years, Campbell Soup made over 600 million dollars from their extra-chunky line: “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.”

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