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September 6th, 2016

How to Use Design to Identify What’s Next in Your Industry

If you hope to guide your business to the leading edge of your category, you’ve got to innovate. But all innovation is risky. So how do you to hedge your risk? Maintain a strong creative culture in your business with design strategies to foster, develop, and test new ideas at the extreme edge. By implementing the following four initiatives, your team can generate breakthrough ideas, test and improve the most promising ones, and verify with your own customers which ones are most likely to succeed and become industry game-changers.

1. Develop deep empathy for your user

The best ideas in your business will be inspired by an intimate understanding of your product users. Make sure your creative team is immersed in the user’s life. Conduct ethnographic research—the study of your users in their own environment, using “fly-on-the-wall” observation combined with face-to-face interviews. Though there may be negative comments, listen most closely to what users hope to get out of their product experience. Learn not only who the user is, but also who they aspire to be. What are they really trying to accomplish, and what tool would best help them do that?

2. Identify the gaps in your market

To find opportunities in your industry, step back and survey the broader category in which you operate or hope to operate. What are the major brands and products? How do they relate to each other? Can you plot them on a matrix or spectrum? Find a meaningful way to map out your industry, and suddenly you will see places on the map that haven’t yet been explored.

gap analysis for filtered water products

To see an example of this “Gap Analysis” in practice, check out our Applica Clear2o case study. In this project, we targeted the gaps in the filtered water industry to develop a breakthrough water pitcher that fills 10X faster and holds 50% more water than typical filtered water pitchers.

3. Hold regular innovation sessions

Invite the top minds from each sector of your business, along with outside creative experts, to brainstorm sessions. The goal of these sessions is to uncover ideas, insights, and opportunities in your industry. Innovation sessions can be held quarterly or annually, depending on your market, your industry, and your business’s capacity to nurture and develop new concepts.

The purpose of the sessions should be constructive. Work to identify and list as many ideas as possible, with little time spent judging or criticizing. Make sure participants are empowered to share ideas whatever way they are most comfortable—written, spoken, doodled, mimed, or molded out of clay.

After each session, work with a smaller strategic team to review the ideas and identify good opportunities, both short- and long-term. You will likely have more opportunities than you have development resources. This is why every manufacturer that hopes to innovate needs a dedicated R&D team to cultivate and vet new ideas and opportunities.

4. Create a robust R&D team

Dennis Gabor, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and author of Inventing the Future, wrote that “the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” In other words, you can’t just count on industry forecasts and market experts to predict what will be big in five years. You have to get your hands dirty and start experimenting—maybe even create the next big thing yourself!

To do so, you’ll need to maintain a robust R&D group, working on multiple far-out concepts, developed concurrently. This team could be responsible for researching, generating, developing, and testing breakthrough ideas. Because the future is so hard to predict, you vastly increase your chances by keeping several irons in the fire. Once concepts are tested and proven in the R&D furnace, they can be filtered down to the primary product development group, then tasked with ID and engineering to bring the product to market.

Some businesses may choose to build and maintain an in-house R&D team, while others rely on outside firms, or a combination. Either way, go ahead and assemble your team. They’ll be critical to keeping your brand at the forefront of new innovation in your industry.

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