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Small “i” Insights or Large “I” Insights Yield Different Innovation

World's first ATM at Charring Cross in London, 1968.

World’s first ATM at Charring Cross in London, 1968.

Qualitative Consumer Verbatims Lead Directly to New and Improved Ideas

Disruptive Innovation Requires Reframing of Consumer Words and Need States

Working with Fortune 1000 companies I’ve found cultures rich in respect for qualitative research. The term “Focus Groups” really doesn’t do the method justice, it’s more sophisticated than that.  Smaller companies often do qualitative to, usually less formally, and often poorly, but sometimes brilliantly. Listening to consumers is a skill any entrepreneur or innovator can cultivate.

The trap is thinking that consumer words, aka insights, are great launching pads or problem frames for ideation. They’re not bad, but they rarely lead to disruptive innovation. As a qual friend said to me, “here are big “I” insights and small “i” insights.”

Respect for qualitative data is important; companies have died ignoring consumers words. Qualitative is a highly useful method for understanding consumers. Consumer feedback is often directly applied to innovation. “They want bigger portions? We’ll give em an extra large size.” This can lead to great results. It’s also failed miserably. Obvious insights are not exactly a competitive advantage either.

Raw data is not information. Information, and higher level insights, can emerge from qualitative, but there is a thinking step between the data and the market-changing insight. So, if a consumer says, “I want a faster bank teller” or “I’d like to get in and out of the bank quickly” a literal problem frame would be “How might we make a teller more efficient?” That would lead to ideas for training, or more tellers, or efficiency processes, essentially improvement ideas. In other words “little i” insights.

A more abstract frame would be “How might we make the customer their own teller?” or “How might we eliminate the teller?” or, “How might we improve the banking experience?” . These higher order problem frames could lead to an idea like the ATM, a disruptive innovation. These frames are more open questions — with a wider field of potential ideas and solutions. The disruptive problem frame (or question) requires imaginative interpretation of the consumers words. Or, it might require deeper qualitative research to get to this level of need.

As it turns out the imaginative insight for the ATM came from an engineer who thought he should be able to get his money just like he got a chocolate bar from a vending machine. His intuitive leap stemmed from the need of access to cash. He brought the idea to Barclay’s Bank in the UK and they developed the first ATM.

As Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 

I’m not a fan of innovators simply building a product or service to their personal visions. The underlying need or usefulness needs to be there, and this is where qualitative is helpful. ATM’s were not trusted at the start, but the need for a faster and more efficient experience was strong enough to overcome initial resistance. A true visionary might indeed see exactly what the market needs without direct consumer verification. You hear about them, Steve Jobs being the notable example — no consumer ever described an iPod. What you don’t hear are the thousands of failures of bright ideas and products that don’t meet a particular need state. Steve didn’t need a focus group to tell him what consumers thought because he was completely immersed in what consumers thought about technology and music. He lived life observing and developing higher order insights.

Qualitative has its purpose! You need to listen — and then you need to think about what they are doing and frame an innovation challenge question with imagination — if disruptive innovation is your goal.

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