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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.

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

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