Developing a New Product? Ask, Observe and Experience

by Rene de Ruijter

Developing a New Product? Ask, Observe and Experience

If you are trying to come up with a new product or service, you should keep your target audience in mind. Who is going to use this once it’s there?

It’s probably the most important part of developing new products or services; knowing what the customer wants. You should put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. What do they feel when doing the job you seek to make easier? What are they struggling with? What irritates them? What keeps them from doing what they want to do? Try to understand what your target audience is going through, and chances are you’ll develop a product or service that people will love.

Take for instance the industrial designer who asked himself how small children would perceive the MRI scanner he designed. By making the procedure an enjoyable experience he not only took away the fear many children had for the machine, but he also made the nurse’s work much more pleasant. Being empathetic is an invaluable asset for a product designer, as it allows you to estimate what will be valuable for the people you intend to serve.


The easiest way to figure out what your (future) customers struggle with, is simply asking them. Ask them what annoys them, what troubles them and what they would like to see different. Just asking people what they want, can give you insights you might not have gotten from thinking about it yourself.

Of course asking your (future) client what he or she desires, is not always enough. In fact, asking people what they want is not nearly as straight-forward as it seems. Tom Kelley, founder of the famous design firm IDEO, gave a great example of this during the World Creativity Forum 2014.

Kelley described how IDEO designers in Germany asked an old lady if she had any trouble opening her medicine bottles. The lady replied that in fact she did not have any problem opening the bottles. “Medicine bottles don’t give me any real trouble.” Less experienced designers might have left it at that…

Luckily the IDEO-designers knew that asking people about their experiences is only the first step. They knew that to fully understand what’s going on, you should observe the situation yourself. And that’s what they did.


The researchers asked the old lady “Can you show us how you open the bottle?” They followed the woman to the kitchen and saw, to their horror, how she opened the medicine bottle with a razor-sharp bread slicer!

People are proud. They might not lie, but they certainly won’t always tell you the entire truth. To figure out what’s really going on, you should observe the situation with your own eyes.

Asking questions and observing the situation are great ways to understand how you can best serve your target audience. However, there is still one more step to be taken if you want to have the best insights for the job: you need to experience first-hand what could be improved.


Try out the action you want to improve. Face the problem you want to solve. Of course this is often easier said than done. It’s not always easy to experience exactly what your customers experience. Especially when there are significant differences between you and the people you are aiming to help.

It could well be that the end users of your product are children, people in wheelchairs or senior citizens. How you experience an activity will usually not be how they experience it. Empathy will help you identify with the target audience, but it will only get you so far.

Imagine you are thirty-year-old designer and your job is to develop something specifically for elderly people. The way you experience things will be very different from their experience… and imagining what their experience is like will be hard. After all, as a young professional you will have no clue what it is like to be old and stiff.

Car manufacturer Ford has found a solution; Ford-engineers get to wear a special suit that allows them to experience what it is like to be at least 30 years older.

Similar suits are used by architects to understand what it’s like to climb and descend a staircase at old age, and by doctors to understand the struggles of elderly patients.

In what ways can you ask, observe and experience to deliver the best possible products and services for your clients?

Would you like to learn more about new product development, or could you use some help? Don’t hesitate to contact me:

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René de Ruijter is Co-Founder at HatRabbits, an agency for business creativity and innovation. HatRabbits organises and facilitates creative think tanks and provides training courses in creative thinking. You can find their company profiles in English and Dutch, and follow them on Twitter.

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