Listening Closer, To Find The Next Big Interaction Idea

The next disruptive idea may be found in how your customers work around the shortcomings of current offerings, writes Steve Baty.

Listening Closer, To Find The Next Big Interaction Idea

This is part two of a series written by the judges of the upcoming IxDA, Interaction Design Awards. Submissions close October 1, 2012.


We all want to come up with the next groundbreaking innovation. But how do you do it? One way is to attune your ear to what people (i.e., your potential customers) are saying. Countless innovation books underscore the importance of studying context and behavior to unlock untapped market potential. And they’re right. Identifying market norms and untested constraints, situating products and services in the broad landscape of the customer’s day-to-day life, and understanding the triggers, motivations, and influences on people’s behavior all contribute strongly to an organization’s ability to innovate.

Not to say that creating a disruptive product is easy. Even the most innovative companies struggle to identify disruptive innovations more than once or twice. But if you want to completely shake up an industry, the best approach is to develop a deep insight into some group of people–customers or non-customers, buyers or influencers. Here are three ways to do it.

1. How do users work around potential roadblocks?

Even though we’re looking to create something unconventional, our current customers speak to our core strengths. They’re also typically the most accessible and usually the most friendly. Look to understand this group’s activity and the motivations for their behavior. Pay attention to how your product or service fits into their day-to-day activities. And look for the workarounds they’ve put in place to integrate your product/service into their lives. Addressing the cause of these workarounds might help to unlock a lot of value.

When Nike approached its customers to figure out how they could improve the experience of running, it might have reasonably expected to get suggestions on how to improve their main product: shoes. Instead, they discovered that “better shoes” sits well down a runner’s list of concerns. Their customers’ biggest concern was staying motivated. Nike learned about training schedules and personal best times–information that led the company to develop its Nike+ ecosystem.

How do people actually use your product, and to what end? Zoom out a little. Ask why. What is your customer trying to achieve? When you look at your customers’ behavior, you may find opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

2. Address all barriers to adoption.

Sometimes, what you see when you observe your customers is how they interact with other people in the course of their activity. Such was the case with KeepCup when it started developing its concept for a reusable coffee mug.


One of the major stumbling blocks for the adoption of reusable thermoses was the professional baristas and café operators, who rejected non-standard-sized coffee mugs because they created confusion and delays during busy periods. With baristas turning away travel cups, the incentive for customers to bring their own mugs was low.

The insight for KeepCup was that it was designing not for one person but two: the coffee drinker and the barista. So it created a range of re-usable mugs in barista-standard sizes. By targeting the product at the barista as well, KeepCup addressed the critical barrier to adoption. Baristas and cafes became advocates for the product, and it spread quickly.

3. Identify tension points.

In Disrupt, Luke Williams writes about the importance of identifying “tension points,” moments when life-as-usual conflicts with the idiosyncrasies of a product or service. The challenge for the designer is to find them, even though people tend not to mention them or even notice them. They show up as patterns: repeated comments and observations, often off-hand. The customer simply accepts them as part of the inherent frustration of the activity.

This was the situation U.K. design firm Vitamins found when it began looking at cellphone use among seniors. Older folks using the phones accepted that the devices were intrinsically complicated, that instruction manuals weren’t necessarily instructional, and that they may have to rely on other people to get the most out of the phones.

Instead of simplifying–or “dumbing down”–the phone, the Vitamins team incorporated the manual into the packaging, so that customers could learn as they began engaging with the device.

Designing in concert with the behaviors of your customers and the context within which their activities take place leads to opportunities for unconventional thinking and disruptive innovation. But that often requires looking beyond the obvious and staring directly into the blind spots of our accepted norms. By understanding what drives behavior and why, and working with business owners to challenge conventions, interaction designers can continue to have an enormous impact.


For more information on the Interaction Awards or to submit a project, go here. Entry to the competition is open to all companies, individuals, and students until October 1.

[Top Image: Head via Shutterstock, Running Image: Randy Son of Robert]