These days most U.S. manufacturers understand how important user research is for developing innovative products. But many have an inefficient approach when it comes to converting those research insights into successful products. If you don’t have an R&D strategy, your business may end up wasting a lot of money and missing valuable opportunities.
Product innovation research is often geared towards supporting and informing the development of one or two new products. This is a linear approach to product R&D: Step 1: conduct research. Step 2: design a product. Step 3: make the product. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a method that has worked fairly well for manufacturers over the years. However, it’s expensive, it’s risky, and it’s time consuming. The downside is that many promising insights and opportunities are shelved because they don’t fit the budget, timeline, or other criteria of the specific program.
The competition is fierce out there. To keep ahead, product manufacturers in the 21st century must adopt a more sustainable R&D strategy. The businesses that have a strong track record for producing meaningful innovation are using a strategy of continuous innovation. That means constantly surveying the landscape for insights and opportunities, and feeding those to a specialized incubation team where insights are developed into workable concepts. From there, the most promising concepts are transitioned into a development program with a clear path to market.
I think of R&D like a vegetable garden: Sure, you can buy a bag of garden soil, plant a tomato seed, and tend the plant until it bears fruit. But if you want to make a successful business out of it, you must maintain healthy soil, plant a range of crops, and harvest each at the perfect time to bring your vegetables to market.
There are two major components of continuous innovation:
1. A research program focused on Continuous Discovery and Validation
Smart manufacturers maintain continuous engagement with their customers and end users. Using internal and external research teams, your business should constantly observe and learn about your customer: their behavior, their environment, and their aspirations.
Later, when concepts and prototypes have been developed, your research team can circle back to these users for feedback. This valuable step can result in important improvements to your designs, and give you the opportunity to gauge interest and validate competing concepts.
2. Concept Incubation where insights are prototyped and cultivated into product concepts
With a mandate to constantly observe and learn from the customer, your research team will identify volumes of insights and your creative team will generate a wide range of ideas. But how do you decide what to pursue? That’s where Concept Incubation comes in. Think of it like a proving ground for all the ideas, both revolutionary and mundane. The Concept Incubation Team investigates, selects, and begins to develop many concepts with extensive prototyping and testing. During the incubation process, many concepts will fail. But others will show promise. That’s why it’s important to develop multiple concurrent opportunities, ranging from small improvements to revolutionary approaches.
The incubation team needs to be composed of expert product developers with experience in product design, engineering, and manufacturing. They must be able to help guide your product strategy based on time and effort required to commercialize concepts. Concepts graduate from the incubation process when the idea is proven to work and engage interest from the market. Only then is the idea passed on to a conventional product development team to execute the industrial design and engineering for manufacture.
To convert research insights into meaningful product innovation that works for your business requires a look at the big picture. You must be continuously engaged with your customers and users, hungry for insights into how they use your products and how they want to live better. And you have to concurrently develop a range of big and small ideas, with timelines ranging from near-term to way out there. That’s how you can stay ahead of your competitors and give your users what they didn’t even know they wanted.