Customer Development and Research / Product Development

Out of the Building #5: Co-create or not?

This time, we gonna cover a method that is “trendy” in one way and despised in another; that can go wrong when not handled the right way while it can also mean a great source of inspiration when it’s done right. Co-creation. In our case, this buzz word means asking your target customers to provide suggestions to the developers/entrepreneurs.

Lately, this technique got quite popular in fields like creation, ideation, product development, brand experience and other forms of experiential, interactive, participative marketing and still…


…when it comes to the usual guidelines and written (informal) norms of Customer Development in startups, this general concept is the black sheep in the imaginary herd of approaches. Experts often cite the legendary quote by Henry Ford, namely that “if we would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said they want a faster horse”. 

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In my opinion, this is only half the truth. Actually, if you would have asked an undereducated farmer in the middle of a dusty American prairie a hundred years ago, yepp, he would have said he wanted a faster horse indeed. This is based on his perception, his existing mental content – it is the only existing possibility he can think of. But is it a bad thing?

Not necessarily. Because a really good entrepreneur (or researcher, or developer) can translate consumer needs and ideas into key insights and valuable inspiration. Okay, they want a faster horse. What is the best way to provide the sense of speed, efficiency, the joy of saving time? Of course the answer is not to breed a mutant super-fast horse (even if all our buttocks and thighs would be much more muscular nowadays),  but to invent an automobile (or something with the same characteristics).

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask your target customers what they want, what they need, what they dream of, “per se”. Of course you should read between the lines and also ask “benchmarking” questions that explore existing patterns,  usage habits, problem-solving behaviour etc. That is why I believe that…


…it is better to ask target customers who are eager and proactive when it comes to providing constructive feedback. Don’t take it as nasty elitism, but owing to my experiences, this methodology works best with educated, well-informed consumers who are actively looking for solutions for their problems (=great early adopter material!).

Don’t wait them to come up with the whole solution on their own. However, based on the ideas, suggestions they gave, you can come up with potential analogue concepts that are truly innovative/feasible/possible/structured etc. 

Users who already use similar products or your Beta version may also give great ideas for features, service elements.

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There are many options to implement the co-creation approach, e.g.:

– Simply providing a platform to provide constructive feedback and ideas. (E.g. on your product site, in social media or as a built-in feature.) But watch out, creating that option and never getting back to the people may kill their enthusiasm fast. Reward your customers by being supportive and grateful for their input.

Placing a “suggestions and comments” box at the end of a survey. Not the most efficient and innovative form of co-creation, but I’ve had some pleasant surprises in many cases, getting quality feedback and ideas for some product concepts.

Organising a small session with some target consumers and the developer/brand team. If the client members are open-minded and laid-back and the consumers are recruited the right way (e.g. they are engaged, proactive, love to share their opinion, love to make an impact on the product and the topic is really relevant to them), it may result in a massive set of insights and ideas. (E.g. with Brainexpress Innovation, a company I used to work for, we did a small session with NGO leaders to improve the functions and the UX of an application for NGO content management.) 

And once again, don’t believe everything you heard, start calculating the cash you gonna make and grab the keyboard to code right away – consider the customer ideas a sign of their inner needs, a hint that helps you find out what they really want to solve, but in the end, it’s you that need to solve their problems.  

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