Steve Jobs Had It Wrong: Why You Should Look To Consumers For Product Innovation

Napkin Labs’ Riley Gibson discusses the upside of consumers messing with your product.

It has long been asserted (famously, by Steve Jobs) that customers can’t tell you what your next product should be. Companies create and customers consume. But the pace of innovation is increasing and customers are gaining access to new tools that democratize innovation. Customers are becoming a critical source of new ideas for brands. They are remixing existing products to make them better, more personalized, or adapting them to do new things. To be competitive, brands need to look outward and cultivate the communities of creative customers that are shaping the future of their products.

Here, we share five examples of creative customers that have remixed existing products in amazing ways:

Remixing iPod Headphones and Ziplock Bags: Lee Washington posted a video several years ago of an idea he had to make iPod headphones better. He recognized—as we all have—that earbuds have a nasty tendency to get tangled. He took a pair of headphones and prototyped a system, much like a ziplock bag, that allows you to lock the headphone cord together. It is a smart solution to an issue we have all been frustrated by. This was not a major consulting project, or the work of an internal R&D team. Lee Washington was a customer who loved Apple, but hated his earbuds getting tangled.

The InkJet Printer Turned Organ Printer: Inkjet printers have a basic purpose. But what if the same system in an Inkjet printer could be hacked and turned into a device that printed cells, or even human organs? In labs around the world, scientists saw that the inkjet technology could be applied to science in a very unique way. They retrofitted off-the-shelf inkjet printers and used them to print cells and human organs. Hundreds of scientific papers were published talking about the process of retrofitting basic inkjet printers to print cells. It is a revolutionary application to a simple consumer product inspired not by HP or Epson, but by creative researchers.

GoPro Camera Hacking: GoPro is an amazing tool that empowers customers to capture high-resolution video. The GoPro brand, in many ways has been defined by the videos, and art, its customers have created. But GoPro customers are also busy hacking and designing new mounts, audio inputs, and even connecting them to drones. Just YouTube "GoPro hack" and a stream of videos appear with consumers remixing the cameras to make them better or capture even more creative and inspiring shots. For example, look at this egg-timer video that turns an IKEA egg timer into an amazing panorama time lapse system. Their solutions may not be the most elegant of designs, but they are problem solving—and this should be a rich source of ideas and feedback for GoPro.

IKEA Hackers: Not everything needs to be tech to be remixed in creative ways. IKEA Hackers is an online community of people that have taken IKEA products and adapted them or mixed them together to create amazing new products. This hanging lamp created from office lamps is just one creation. IKEA Hackers is a world of creative applications and hacks and can be a window into new product ideas or adaptations of existing IKEA products.

Microsoft Kinect: The instant Microsoft’s Kinect system hit the market, people started taking it apart and adapting it for new uses. Customers designed a virtual dressing room, interactive billboards, and spatially aware robots. The core technology in the Kinect system became a set of tools consumers used to create innovations. Microsoft has embraced this movement, hosting Hackathons and creating an accelerator program for startups. The genius in this system is that Microsoft has armed its consumers with building blocks and created the infrastructure to catalyze and discover the various innovations and applications they come up with.

What does this all mean for consumer product brands?

Brands and legal teams will naturally fight these communities. Brands must champion a decision to cultivate and catalyze their most creative customers. Why? Because the smartest people are most likely outside the company, and by cultivating communities, brands can accelerate their pace of innovation while lowering risk and investments into ideas that have no roots in real consumer needs.

Innovation teams need to think beyond "what’s our next product" and start thinking about how they can create more open products that can be adapted and improved over time. Developers have been using APIs and open source software for many years to increase the pace of innovation. Consumer product companies can mimic these more open systems. Just look at companies like Sifteo or Lapka that have created physical products connected to software that are designed to be remixed into new applications.

Finally, companies need to catalyze and embrace the ideas of customers to drive brand affinity and authentic content creation. Every idea, hack, reinvention of a product tells a story. Crowdsourced ideas are a rich source of social content that can drive engagement. Opening brands up to ideas also has the benefit of activating social networks to think creatively about the brands they love. People embrace what they influence, so more open and transparent brands will become the most loved and talked about as well.

Riley Gibson is the cofounder and CEO of Napkin Labs, a startup that builds tools to help companies turn their Facebook fans into an army of collaborators for new insights and ideas. For more thoughts on tapping online communities for innovation, check out the Napkin Labs blog and read one of Gibson’s previous Co.Create columns here

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  • Tgruth

    Your examples are incremental improvements or uses for existing products. Not what would be considered market disruptive products. I.E. Ipad. Incremental Improvements are a product of Continuous Improvement. While disruptive products can come from any source, they are most likely going to come from someone who is looking at disrupting a given market to do it differently and uniquely to gain competitive advantage and establish dominance in a core market not a dirivative product . Jobs did not say which company they would come out of. His or someone elses. Steve Jobs still had it right (for the most part).

  • Nicholas M. Cummings

    Customers should dictate the problem and their needs, not the product itself. A truly novel design doesn't necessarily match exactly what customers have in mind, but rather solves the problem in a more elegant way than what exists.

  • Robert Jacoby

    Innovation can come from many quarters. What I think Mr. Jobs *really* got wrong was paying Chinese workers $2 per hour for 12-hour shifts and also using child labor.

  • dl44t

    I assume that you the planet where they pay assembly line workers $50 an hour and computers cost $10k.

  • AndreaDickerson

    KC has a great Mom Inspired Grant Program that encourages consumer innovation and strengthen their B2C relationship.  Companies should be more proactive about looking outside their 4 walls for new and innovative products.

  • Cheyserr

    Listening to what the customer has to say is also important. This way, companies will be made aware of the wants and the needs of the customers. However, innovators should still be the one to develop these products and services that mirrors or even encompasses those needs and wants of the custoemrs.

  • matthew

    "Steve Jobs Had it Wrong"

    By that the author/editor is arguing that companies have to get it wrong to get it right?

    Steve Jobs's iPhone just received it's 9th consecutive J.D. Powers customer satisfaction award.

  • Leo Koenig

    You have it wrong.  First off, congratulations, you got me with the headline.  You make one big mistake - you cannot equal a few innovative minds as "the customer".  You cannot say that five people came up with cool ideas, and hence one should listen to their customers.  There are like 100 million more customers out there, and if you conduct marketing surveys or ask them what they want, 99.99% will give you the "wrong" answer. 

  • Tbasadur

     Listening to customers goes beyond simply asking them what they want. It also doesn't necessarily mean an actual conversation.

  • Stephen Nason

    Wow. History does repeat itself. This very concept that customers know best was dispensed with when Henry Ford said if we asked customers what they wanted before cars they would tell us better buggy whips. Innovation can come from many quarters, and a company that wants to be innovators will look and listen in more than one direction. Innovation is by no means linear! I often tell my staff that a lot of innovation comes from "out of the box thinking" which at first seems cliche. But when I explain that thinking out of the box involves getting out of our box, getting into someone else's box and then coming back with something from that box to our box is innovation they suddenly get it and our innovation moves dramatically forward. I also believe that entrepreneurs operate on a unique ability to take two or more concepts that are seemingly unrelated and bring them together into something bigger, better and "marketable". Steve Jobs didn't have it wrong and neither do those folks who work with customers to find innovative answers to problems have it wrong either.

  • brentipi

    Yes, it is human nature to innovate and improve.....seems like the first time I innovated/improved a product was when I switched the carburetor on my 1965 Ford Fairlane to a self-tooled aftermarket replacement.......we actually could to things like that back then.........much more difficult to develop new products/solutions with mass appeal/demand.......thanks Steve, not sure we'll have a replacement like you any time soon.......

  • Pete Iorns

    Yeh right, Steve Jobs had it so, so, so wrong. While the body of the article is well written and highlights a particlular angle of product development the premise and promise of the headline is pure a sensationalist cheap shot. "Call into question Steve Jobs' and Apple's methods and people will listen to what I say." That the writer should know better, and that the headline doesn't actually relate to the gist of the article, actually weakens the whole article.

    More accurate would be: "What to do if you aren't able to innovate yourself. If you aren't able to produce a good product get someone else to. If you can't even manage to find someone who's innovative and creative enough, go searching, some of your customers might have some insights."

    But the point is that it's not a given you will find even one iota or spark of innovation amoungst them. The Simpson's Homer Car episode is a scarily accurate parody of this method.

  • Bob Jacobson

    For sure.  I'm a lifelong Apple user from the Apple II onto the latest Mac.  (Not the iPhone, however.  Loyalty has its limits.)  Despite all the adulation for Steve Jobs following his death, by far the most creative developments affecting the Mac were a combination of internal and external influences.  

    There was a time not so long ago that the most dynamic contributors to the Mac's evolution were the Apple Clubs in most major cities.  And despite Jobs' riding the iPod and iPhone to remarkable success, it can be argued that Apple's computers have seriously lagged the field since he resumed control.  It was during the much reviled (by Jobs' supporters) Gil Emilio's stint as CEO that the greatest experimentation took place, because it was during the brief window that the Mac interface was licensable.  All sorts of innovations took place, ultimately resulting in the terrific G3 and G4 Macs. 

    The switch to Intel CPUs -- a business decision -- brought its own advantages, but none that Apple has terrifically well exploited.  And as Apple has gradually excluded most of its heavy computer users from the company's internal dialogue, the Mac has noticeably declined.  If it wasn't for Microsoft's clumsiness, many users would have shifted over by now to another platform.

    With the iPhone, it awakened a host of sleeping giants who are now tracking backward from phones to laptops. If Samsung shows up with a lookalike but better laptop, Apple had better watch out.  I don't see Samsung as noticeably more open to user input than Apple, but maybe that's just a matter of time.  Then Jobs' theory of exclusivity will be sorely tested.

  • trbryant

    I'm no Apple fan, but on this one I had to chime in.  Steve Jobs DID NOT have it wrong.  What this reveals is that there is more than one way to solve problems.   Crowdsourcing is one way to gain inspiring ideas, but if you are creative (as Steve was) go with what you know in your gut.  

  • Mary Aviles

    Love these examples. Have you read Democratizing Innovation? I've also noticed that IKEA has begun to feature some of the better hacks on their showroom floors. For example, I've seen a train table layout that was at least inspired by a popular hack.

  • Michael Murphy

    There are great examples!  There's no greater compliment to a product designer or marketer than to see their product being extended, hacked.  

    The stories above outline the organic hacking by consumers in the real world.  But, I do believe that this principle can be harnessed in a directed way.  In my innovation consulting practice, we are constantly having consumers (and clients!) sit down with simple materials and products to build, disassemble, and re-build into something new and different.  When these exercises are structured properly, you can even create new ideas while simulating existing manufacturing processes.  Some of our best results have been inspired by something someone made out legos or craft foam by a consumer that we recruited!


  • Shane Johnston

    I think the Jobs' quote is often taken out of context (and I'm a PC/Android user).  Jobs was right when you want to create a new market.  There was no market for iPods.  No Apple user would have told Jobs they wanted an iPod before they were invented.

    All of the examples above are excellent ideas further perfecting existing products. In this vein, asking the customer what they want makes perfect sense.

  • Jeffrey Todd Wyckoff

    I have to disagree with the basic premise of this post, that "To be competitive, brands need to look outward and cultivate the communities of creative customers that are shaping the future of their products."

    I think it's important to begin with a question of "What kind of product (therefore, company) am I trying to build? -- The answer yields important insight into the best ways to go about bringing a product into the world.

    The line in the sand that forces all of us to choose.

    1 - I'm building something that I believe in, about which I have a convicted opinion. I care deeply about making this thing in the way that I feel is best, because I've worked harder, and devoted more time, thought and energy to this thing than anyone else in the world. I'm going to work on this until it's something that I feel is great, and then, I'll put it out into the world, and give people a choice to either agree or disagree with me. Those who agree that my product is great will buy it, and they will know that they're buying something that I've poured my soul into, and that I'm deeply convicted about, and that I believe in. Those who disagree, and don't think it's great, won't buy it -- and that's OK! I'm building something that won't necessarily appeal to the masses, but for those to whom it does appeal, they will love it.

    2 - I'm building something that I want to appeal to a massive audience. I'm looking to build a product that is super scalable, and that integrates the opinions (and innovations) of my customers. I'm crowd-sourcing (or out-sourcing) the design of this product/company. I'm going to build an iteration, put it out in the market to be tested by users, I'm going to gain as much feedback as possible, and use that to drive my decision making for future iterations. The end result of this product will be not necessarily my own opinion of what it should be, but will instead represent the amalgamation of many opinions. It may or may not be something that people truly "believe" in, and people may or may not be willing to pay for it, depending on the extent to which I incorporated features that correspond to each individuals' desires and opinions. This product will be something that can appeal to a wide audience, thus the experience will necessarily be "pragmatic", "middle of the road", or "average". 

    If you believe "the smartest people are most likely outside the company" Then you should rely heavily on user testing, hacking, and feedback of your product. BUT if you believe that your company's people are the smartest, most talented, most convicted individuals when it comes to the company and it's products, user testing will probably be an afterthought, because the product/company decisions are based on convicted opinons of the creators.

    To be clear, testing a product, and iterating many times, and testing more, and re-iterating, is absolutely necessary. But as Tim Cook said at D10 last year (paraphrase), "We think we're pretty good proxies for our customers."   There's no question that Apple iterates and tests probably more than most any other company in the world, the difference is that this is all done internally, and they don't make a public release of a product, until they feel that it's truly great (which they don't always get right). 

    It's not necessarily better/worse, right/wrong to choose method 1 or 2 -- It's just a choice that each of us, as creators, must make. 

    Finally, for those who choose option 1 - it takes a TON of courage to build something, pour your heart, soul and opinions into, and then put it out into the world. When we have the courage to say, "this represents my passions, opinions and values, agree or disagree," - we're taking a leap of faith that few others are willing to take. 

    Have courage, have an opinion.