Volume 14, 
October, 2016


Can You Play Well With Your Customers?
Five essentials to have in place before you launch a co-creation effort


Sheila Mello


Like most companies, you’ve probably put customers at the center of your design and development efforts with initiatives such as customer-centric product definition, a focus on customer value, and a well-honed voice-of-the-customer program. 

But have you thought about taking customer-centricity to its next stage: co-creation, or direct customer involvement in the product design process?

Since MIT professor Eric von Hippel introduced the idea in the 1970s, it has taken many forms and gone by many names—customer collaboration, open innovation, open-source development, value co-creation.

Yet even the most customer-focused companies have hesitated to undertake co-creation. They fear that such intimate involvement by customers might result in leaks of confidential information, despite efforts to keep things under wraps with non-disclosure agreements, or that the process might divert resources to peripheral projects. In the case of some products—for example, embedded software or highly specialized industrial tools—involving the customer in any meaningful way in the design process may simply be too difficult.

I’ve been thinking about companies working side by side with customers as I get ready for PDC’s session at Frost’s New Product Innovation & Development MindXChange, Powering the Next Stage of Product Development by Ideating with Your Customer. While the session will look at one aspect of integrating customers into development—asking the right questions to elicit customer insights—I wondered about the larger issue of co-creation and what’s required for that to be successful. 

Here are five criteria your company needs to meet before you can be successful at co-creation:

  1. You know what business you’re in. This might sound silly or obvious, but if you don’t have a well-defined mission and a good sense of your target market, your “customers” (who may not even be your ideal target consumers) may help you create a product that’s suitable for a different company altogether. You need to know how new offerings will fit strategically into your core business.
  2. Your customer research process is already well developed. Your management team is supportive and you have a strong cross-functional team framework for interacting with customers.
  3. You have a reliable, evidence-based method of defining products. If this isn’t in place, you’ll find yourself pulled in a thousand directions. What if the customers you’re collaborating with aren’t representative of the majority of your customer base? You’ll need a way to prioritize requirements and test to ensure that they’re relevant.
  4. You are able to bring together your most innovative cross-functional team to brainstorm with a selected set of customers. To get the most out of joint brainstorming requires both that internal staff be open to hearing what customers have to say and that customers be willing to collaborate. This isn’t always easy. You need the right people in place.
  5. You have an experienced facilitator to lead the combined group through brainstorming. Your facilitator needs to be skilled enough to engage everyone in the process, to summarize and communicate innovative ideas visually, and to ensure that no one person overpowers the process.

Co-creation can be a powerful way to tap deep into customer needs and desires. It’s the ultimate expression of putting the customer at the center of your development efforts—but it requires some careful thinking before you dive in.

Have you ever undertaken collaborative development or co-creation or participated in open-source development? I’d love to hear your experiences. Email me.

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