In the 1970s a team at the University of Sussex undertook what they hoped would become a landmark study to understand why innovations succeed and fail. They studied the chemicals and scientific instruments industries, examining over 200 factors that could impact successful innovation.
Ultimately they found that very few factors seemed to be consistently correlated with success. Importantly, in the context of a highly technical industry, they found that technical superiority did not actually consistently lead to successful innovation. Rather the few factors impacting success seemed to have the most to do with customer understanding and the most critical factor proved to be understanding user's needs from the very beginning of the innovation effort.
The study is remarkable both because of the number of factors tested as well as the outcome. Innovators were far more successful when understanding user needs from the beginning, not after they had built a solution. Far too many innovators, the best among us, almost can't help ourselves. We think in terms of solutions. The question is, what now? The solution is relatively simple. For any innovation project, at any stage, pause and try to understand, what problem are you actually solving? The best writers on innovation talk about this differently but all hint at the same thing.
For example, Chan Kim and Rene Mauborgne write about Curves, a women's fitness franchise which experienced explosive growth in what most analysts thought was an already saturated market. How did they find growth in a crowded market? They looked at the existing solutions and asked the question, why do customers trade up or down between the existing alternatives of a home-exercise program and an expense gym membership. What they observed was that customers traded up to gyms because it helped them stay motivated to exercise but they traded down to home exercise programs because of the time and cost of travelling to centrally located gyms. Curves solved these needs in a new way, providing more conveniently located, lower cost gyms with a limited range of equipment (equipment startup cost $50k instead of the average $750k in a standard gym) that solved the real customer need much better: how can I motivate myself to exercise without the expense and commute.
In the Innovator's Method, I describe this as understanding what job your customer is trying to get done. Often we think only in terms of functional jobs, and forget that every "job to be done" has an emotional and social component as well. For example, some of my students wanted to help anxious parents worried about losing their children in a crowded place. They immediately assumed the solution was a "child leash" which they would make cool through industrial design and affordable through overseas manufacturing. I pushed them to go watch parents and talk to them first. What they quickly discovered was that while the leash does the functional job, parents felt like "bad parents" (emotional job) and were embarrassed in from of their peers (social job). Clearly if they had placed a purchase order for 10,000 of their newly designed leashes they were going to fail. Instead, using what they learned about their customer before they starting manufacturing the product, they redesigned their concept as a Bluetooth band that children could wear on their wrist and which would link to the parent's cell phone. Parents could set the perimeter for their children and receive alerts if their children strayed outside the limits. Long story short, by understanding the customer need first, they have a growing business today.
Perhaps ask yourself, do I understand my customer's job to be done? While our understanding is never complete, taking the time to go beyond surveys and instead observe and talk to customers almost always creates critically important insights for any innovator.