Fuel Cycle

The Scientific Path to Innovation: The Iterative Nature of Online Communities

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By: Zoe Rose, Senior Research Associate

The book “Zero to One,” written by entrepreneur and investor, Peter Thiel, defines the differences between an innovation that makes incremental changes to a product, service, or experience, and one that brings a product, service, or experience into existence from nothing, or more cleverly, from “zero to one.” It is my observation that businesses tend not to take the leap from zero to one due to the uncertainty that is intrinsic to any act of invention and the unknown is risky.

Enter, the process of Design Thinking. Stanford professor and author of “The Designer in Society,” Bernard Roth developed a 5-step approach to design that helps take some of the guesswork out of concept development. Whether you are creating something out of nothing or evolving an already existing product or service, the Design Thinking method traces a simple, scientific path to action.

Here are a few pro-tips for utilizing community during each of the 5 stages.

Empathize: learn what the issues are.

Who is your customer? What are their wants and needs? By creating an online community, you are literally rounding up your customers into a digital lab for examination. Yes, pre-planned surveys and discussion boards help get the conversation going, but Member Generated Content is where some of the most unpredictable insights surface. These discussions are 100% member-crafted and can lead to extraordinary leaps in empathy because instead of simply guessing what your customer might want, they’re telling you exactly what they need without prompt or bias.

Define the problem.

Before you can provide a solution worth your customer’s time and money, you first need to identify the problem that needs solving. This might seem like an obvious step, but it often can’t be accomplished alone or even with countless meetings with your internal team. Carefully crafted surveys can help you synthesize down to the specifics, by offering the opportunity for your customers to share their thoughts and opinions about the issues you identified in the first stage (Empathize). Understandings gleaned from this stage will help your team’s designers gather great ideas of which functions and features to either reformulate or establish.

Ideate: generate possible solutions.

You’ve learned about your users and their needs in the Empathize stage and analyzed your observations in the Define stage. Now, you and your team can brainstorm new, human-centered solutions. There are tons of ideation techniques out there, but one thing many companies don’t think to do is to pick the brains of the same individuals they observed and questioned, to find the answers. Because it is important to generate as many ideas as possible at the beginning of the Ideate phase, it will only behoove you to consult your fans. Your customers love being a behind-the-scenes part of the process, and a creative brainstorm is an excellent way to make them feel heard, valued, and engaged.

Prototype: build out the concept or develop a plan.

One of the most important things to remember during prototyping is to forget perfection. Just do it. Materialize your idea to the degree that you can imagine what it would be like out in the real world. The faster you try, the faster you’ll bump up against the roadblocks, and the faster you’ll find workarounds. You cannot succeed without experimentation and setbacks, so the faster you fail, the sooner you’ll succeed.

Test: get feedback from others

Once you get your prototype to a place you’re satisfied with, test it! In-Home Usage Testing is a great way to get your prototype into the hands of customers before potentially wasting your entire budget on everything from manufacturing to marketing on a flop. A combination of quantitative surveys and video sentiment analysis tools like VoxPopMe can result in amazingly powerful and sometimes unexpected feedback.

At its core, the Design Thinking process is an iterative collaboration between designers and users.  It gives your customers a voice and gives you a deeper understanding of how you can provide greater value, resulting in a win-win. At Fuel Cycle, we add a 6th step to this process, called Closing the Feedback Loop (lovingly acronymed CTFL for short). By sharing with your customers exactly how you used the research you ran together, Closing the Feedback Loop fosters a sense of intimacy and purpose in the community. So not only do communities provide a playground for research, they can also be an incubator for deep and lasting customer loyalty.