We all know the clichés. The lab worker with a lightbulb over their head as their eyes widen behind safety goggles. The brilliant entrepreneur sketching out their breakthrough inspiration on a whiteboard in front of a rapt audience. The weary musician jotting down notes and chords that came to them in a dream or the product manager dreaming of new product ideas.
Product teams long for similar moments of inspiration, but the motivational poster vision of breakthrough ideas misses the raw materials and effort that lead up to these moments. So, if we don’t get a steady stream of effortless epiphanies, where do product managers gather the inputs to the product ideation phase of the next breakthrough solution?
Product managers must start with a broad perspective of what’s possible and then narrow things down. If you’ve been deeply submerged in your product ideas and users, this step is critical because it forces the team to prairie dog up to get a fuller picture.
The goal is not necessarily finding brand new challenges to solve but rather gaining a more accurate understanding of the world your customers live in and what keeps demanding their attention.
There are various competitive intelligence sources to understand your overall market, the markets your customers are targeting, and the dynamics and trends shaping customer behavior.
Third-party market sizings and forecasts
Sizing your total addressable market can be tricky. Third-party research from global providers and boutique is not cheap; however, sometimes high-level forecasts or extracts get revealed in press releases or articles touting the availability of a new market sizing report. This is often good enough for basic sizing exercises and keeping forecasts tethered to reality.
Don’t forget to mine government documents and reports for potential market sizing. For example, the FCC manages maps showing parts of the United States without broadband service. Make your tax dollars work for you.
Third-party customer surveys
While you’re likely already surveying your own customers (more on this in the Inside Out section below), stay on the lookout for industry surveys by third parties of your potential customer base to see what insights may exist.
While your existing customer base remains vitally important, understanding the perspective and needs of the market beyond your existing base and immediate niche holds equal value. Professional and industry-based associations often undertake this research, spreading the cost across members and creating a shared reality for members.
Competitor profiles and deep dives for product ideas
Competitor actions should never dictate your strategy, but you need a solid handle on your competitors’ products, markets, and messaging. With a complete picture of the players, the odds increase for your team to discover gaps, unmet needs, or new opportunities.
With this knowledge in hand, you’ll craft your products with full knowledge of how they fit into the existing landscape and what deserves prioritization and center stage in messaging and go-to-market activities.
Suppliers and distributors
Your suppliers and distributors do more than provide you with the ingredients to build and get your product to market; they offer an insider perspective that you need to understand. Suppliers typically serve multiple players in the same market, while distributors sell competitive and complimentary products.
Not only can these essential members of the ecosystem give you the inside track on a cheaper, faster, or better component in development, but they also have insights into the competitive landscape and buyer’s journey.
Carefully curated media
Google alerts can fill your inbox with mentions of the keywords you’re tracking, but triaging a firehose of media articles, podcasts, and videos to find real value gets overwhelming fast. Instead, take a less is more approach by focusing on thoughtful, critical, and well-rounded content from trusted sources.
Find a few key publications or authors that get your space and prioritize quality over quantity.
Social media, user forums, reviews, etc.
The ratio of social media and online noise to signal is high. However, you can’t ignore this segment when collecting external inputs to the product ideation process. User forum posts, unbiased reviews, and trending topics provide a trove of potential insights. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole and think you need to read every post and tweet or watch every video, or you’ll never get any other work done.
With that grounding in the larger context and environment in which you and your customers operate, you can begin mining for inputs within your organization. This inside perspective is unique to your company, full of data points and observations only attainable through these channels.
Ground your team in the latest company direction and strategy. If your company is moving deeper into the B2B space, then a feature set designed to delight consumers, however fantastic, is not the right fit for your company.
Shifting toward a particular vertical, embracing a certain delivery model, or adopting a new architecture are critical inputs to your ideation process. Stay aligned with corporate strategy to avoid a potential strategic mismatch.
Internal data and analytics
Data and analytics increasingly power decisions, so ensure you have the latest and most meaningful data as part of your creative process. Work with colleagues to define the most useful product data you’d like, then ensure current or future instrumentation collects and aggregates it.
These product analytics sometimes reveal key information, such as the point when a subsegment of potential users falls out of the sales funnel or the time of day when your platform struggles to balance its load. Tap product operations to own and share these helpful learnings with the appropriate teams and individuals.
Sales and account management
Key sales and account information should already be part of your organization’s data and analytics; however, there are softer data held by sales and account management teams that also contain numerous product ideas.
Win/loss analysis is particularly important because it reveals the magic that made a deal happen or the deficit that put the final nail in the coffin. Your sales and account management colleagues spend all day speaking to your potential and existing customers. Don’t miss out on the softer insights straight from the field.
The customer support/service/success organization arguably holds the most relevant information on your product’s weaknesses or feature gaps since they deal with frustrated and stuck users all day. Skipping this source of ideation input could be fatal for your product’s success.
In the Outside In section above, we discuss the value of customer research conducted by third-party firms. But speaking directly to your products’ users and buyers helps product teams learn, among other things, what else customers need and may want from your company.
Since you own and drive this research, make it as specific to your needs as possible. Just be mindful of “survey fatigue” and make sure to message your customers about how their feedback is affecting your product by closing the loop.
Putting those product idea inputs to work
Now that you’ve collected all your raw materials, reviewed and digested them, it is time for the hard part–creating the opportunity and environment for inspiration to strike. By fertilizing your creative process with the right minerals and compounds, you will have created a rich soil to nurture your next big product idea.
And, before those product ideas start piling up, don’t forget to have your idea management strategy locked down and ready to scoop up all those great ideas.