Product Innovation: Are Your Ideas Solving Real Problems?

Comedian Norm Macdonald has a funny bit about how some sports on the cable networks are “just made up.” They have 24 hours of airtime to fill, after all, so sometimes they’ll just combine two totally unrelated sports and—voila—new sport! “I saw one where a guy would run the hundred-meter dash,” Macdonald says, “and then… fish.”

These “made up” sports are a great example of a common pitfall in product management: innovation for innovation’s sake.

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The Product Innovation Temptation

It’s perfectly understandable for a product manager to focus on product innovation. To look for the big breakout idea that changes the game turns her industry on its head, and makes her company the “Apple of [whatever industry she’s in]”. Society has elevated many of the big innovators—Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk—to celebrity status.

And yes, sometimes a major innovation can be a massive success. When a couple of young men attending a tech conference in Paris got frustrated after not being able to get a cab, they created an entirely new industry: ride-sharing… without the cab!

But the massive value that Uber created—not only for ride-sharing but across so many industries that “We’re the Uber of…” is now a cliché—comes not from the fact that the idea was innovative. Innovation in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It can lead to Uber, or it can lead to the Shoe Umbrella. (Yep, that was a real thing.)

The real question you should ask yourself about your new product/new service/new feature idea isn’t whether it’ll be innovative. It’s: “Does this address a real need for a real customer?”. True, valuable innovation comes out of prioritizing those ideas over the rest.

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Here are a few tips for finding product ideas that actually solve real problems. (Your idea might be innovative, too, but that’s secondary.)

A Few Ways to Find Product Ideas That Are Even Better Than “Innovations”

1. Find a gap or point of friction in your target user’s current process.

We at ProductPlan have always found it odd that so many ATMs still structure their transactions this way: You put in your card, punch in your code, specify how much cash you want, and the machine pushes out your cash. Then, before it returns your card so you can leave, the machine makes you answer several more questions—“Do you want a receipt?”, “Would you like another transaction?”, “Would you like to learn about our home equity loans?”—while you’re standing there holding your cash!

Fixing this problem might not sound very innovative or exciting to the product managers responsible for the ATM experience. But such an incremental improvement in the process—getting all of that administrative business out of the way so the second we grab our stack of $20s we can get the heck out of there—can solve a real problem for millions of bank customers.

The point is, maybe your next great idea isn’t an Uber-sized industry changer. Maybe it should be a small but valuable incremental upgrade that can improve your customers’ experience today.
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2. Ask your customers.

This probably sounds too obvious to list here, but it’s worth considering that your prospects and existing customers don’t necessarily want a huge change that will upend the way they’re currently engaging with your product.

They might just want it to work on a Windows phone.

They might just want your web service to offer better encryption so they’ll be compliant with their industry’s data-privacy regulators if they store their data on your cloud.

They might just want a new, minor piece of functionality added to your app that’ll be relatively easy for your team to develop—and not particularly innovative. That’s okay, too.

3. Check out your backlog.

Or better yet, pop open your “feature ideas” file (You have one of those, don’t you?) and scan it for great ideas you captured in a brainstorming meeting or heard from a thoughtful customer but never had time to put into action.

Often the best ideas for your products come in rapid-fire succession in brainstorming meetings or in conversations with particularly engaged and insightful customers. And more often than not, those are not the right times to slot those ideas into your product roadmap.

But if you’re casting about for new feature ideas or ways to add value to your product, those brainstorming notes and customer suggestions might be rich with possibilities. Check in on them regularly.

A related tip: Keep these “great-but-not-right-now” ideas in their own file—and not in your product backlog, which should be a far leaner and more strategic document.

Most of Your Product’s Success Will Come Not from Eye-Popping Innovation, But from Steady Incremental Improvements

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Bottom line: Game-changing, mind-blowing product innovations are awesome. (Three cheers for the iPhone! And commercial air travel! And… indoor plumbing!)

But most of the success you’ll enjoy as a product manager, most of the value you’ll be able to deliver your customers, won’t come from totally reimagining an entire industry or process. It’ll come from thoughtfully—and, yes, creatively—finding ways to improve on your products to offer an ever-better customer experience.

(Of course, if you’ve got something in mind that can outdo indoor plumbing, don’t let us stop you!)