The common wisdom for developing new products, goes something like this:
- Find an unsolved problem or an unmet need
- Identify who values that need
- Build a profitable solution for that audience
- Communicate the existence and value of the solution to the market
- Iterate as needed
- Reap the rewards
There are many variations of this list, but generally this is the conventional wisdom.
A while back, I wrote a post entitled. Forget research, let’s just build something! I started it with the following haiku:
Research a concept?
How accurate will it be?
Build something, then see.
In mature or maturing markets, its a lot easier to identify adjacent problems for a set of target customers and work to address them. There are many reasons for this, but a lot of it has to do with working within a specific context or frame of reference and evolving from there. The user isn’t forced to make a context switch to a completely new problem space or new set of actions, which may be a big leap for them.
But when trying to create a new solution or a new market, identifying “unsolved problems” that people will identify with becomes very difficult.
Example 1: Cell phones
For example, consider how people first viewed cell phones. A lot of people couldn’t understand why someone would want to carry a phone around with them everywhere they went. I had a coworker back in the 1980s who had one of those big, bulky (even by standards back then) phones with a separate 5lb battery pack. The phones cost thousands of dollars, had poor coverage, and were very expensive to use. What “unsolved” problem was being addressed there? In those early days, how many people would say “Yes, I have a problem big enough that I need to carry that device around.”?
But once the public became comfortable with cell phones, and the devices got smaller and more affordable, additional features such as cameras and keyboards were added and usage spread very quickly. Now, 60% of people in the world have cell phones and there’s still a lot of room for growth.
Example 2: Rubik’s Cube
Now think about the Rubik’s Cube. This is the most popular toy in history. Over 300,000,000 units have been sold since it’s introduction almost 25 years ago. Could anyone have predicted it would be so popular? If you described the idea of the Rubik’s Cube to someone:
Imagine a 3x3x3 cube with each face having a unique colour and each face having nine independent squares on it. Now imagine if you could rotate the top, bottom, sides etc. of that cube around the central x-y-z axes so that the colours on each face are mixed up. Now the object is to take that mixed up cube and return it to the original state as fast as possible. Wouldn’t that be really fun?
What kind of response do you think you would have gotten? First, what is the problem that this toy addresses? Boredom? Curiosity? There is no problem really. The cube is a diversion for people. Second, it was originally built as a model by Erno Rubik, it’s inventor and a math professor, to use in his classes to demonstrate certain mathematical principles. The Rubik’s Cube is still on sale today and many derivatives of it have also done well in the market.
Example 3: Twitter
Finally, let’s look at the Twitter. .you can find stories of the origin of Twitter in different places on the Web. Here’s one from Wired magazine that describes it quite succinctly. The key line from the article is:
“I had an idea to make a more ‘live’ LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any hint of solving any kind of problem there, or in the rest of the article. “Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are and sharing it”??? That’s what started it?
It sounds like the writer just thought it was a cool thing to try and do. Granted, Twitter still doesn’t have a sustainable business or revenue model, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a very popular service.
And so what?
So here’s the rub. Yes, these are only three examples, but I could have cited many other consumer, leisure or technical successes that had similar non-problem solving starts. The principle of finding an unsolved problem or an unmet need and then addressing it is a good rule to follow, but it, in no way, is the only reason to create a new product or service.
In fact for some successful products, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to precisely state the problem that is being solved (e.g. Heely’s roller shoes)
Or, perhaps there is an initial problem that is addressed, but the success comes from addressing another need or problem (e.g. Google started as a search engine, but found incredible success as an advertising platform).
A lot of successful products or services only became that way AFTER they were introduced to the market and people actually experienced them for themselves. In those cases, no amount of requirements gathering, interviews, focus groups etc. could have provided confirmation that success was in the future.
It’s important to remember when brainstorming or thinking of new products or services, to not simply fall into the trap of “conventional thinking”. If you have an idea, think it through as much as you can, but in the end, if you really believe in the idea, go for it. You never know where it high it will go and perhaps take you along with it.