Innovation: Understanding the Strategic Role of the End-users

How do you go about incorporating end-user viewpoints into innovation? Indeed should you? There's a debate around both questions but whichever side of the fence you are on, social science has a role to play in understanding how end-users can and should influence product development. Emma Pivetta I Contreras describes the techniques.

Innovation

Since the 19th century, many sociologist have been studying innovations, ideas and products spread among some chosen segments of the market or the whole society. First of them was the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde with the diffusion of innovation theory, a theory that was later improved by Everett Rogers in the last century. Nowadays, there is a branch of sociology called “social innovation” that studies how to spread technological and scientific innovations through society.  There are other sociological branches that have been studying how societies respond to new trends and innovative concepts.

Sociological techniques are able to supply interesting tools in order to incorporate end-users perceptions, needs from the beginning of the innovation process.

Citizens and customers no longer serve as suppliers for information about their needs (as traditional innovation management); they make contributions to the process of developing new products to resolve problems,Howald and Schwartz tell us.

End-users are the starting point of the innovation process. “Innovation because of innovation is useless. Innovation is creating products that make life easiersays Domenech (in a Barcelona Innova interview), “the future will not be written by an engineer, but rather the response to a latent need.

Those latest references summarize why the end – users’ inclusion from the beginning of an innovation process is so meaningful for innovation practitioners.

If the process includes end-users from the beginning, it will allow innovation managers to understand the preferences, expectations and desires of the market.

This co-creation process has the following benefits: innovation creates concepts, products and services that have as a main aim making life easier for a group of people or for the entire society. If the process includes end-users from the beginning, it will allow innovation managers to understand the preferences, expectations and desires of the market.  Knowing the preferences, expectations and needs of targeted end-users should improve the allocation of human resources and budgets of  innovative projects. It also means improving the probability of success.

Social sciences, specially sociology have the methodologies and techniques to help achieve those benefits.

Many ideas, stakeholders, innovation, inputs

Sociological methodologies

Decision support, proper resources allocation, reliability

Figure 1: Benefits from the usage of sociological methodologies for the end-users inclusion into innovation process design.

End-users and sociological methodologies: key tools for innovation practice

A key question though is how best can we include the end-users in an innovation process?

Three sociological methodologies can be used for the inclusion of end-users in innovation process design from the beginning of the project:

  • Qualitative methodologies
  • Quantitative methodologies
  • Consensus methodologies

Depending on the approach selected for the end-users participation and the scope of the innovation “per se” , one such methodology will be of value.

Among the best qualitative techniques for this purpose there are the following:

Focus groups, discussion groups, chats, blogs: composed of a group of selected persons (end-users) with the main objective of discussing their points of view in relation with a product or service. Right now, because of the growth of 2.0 web tools, the analysis of groups can be done as well by using qualitative online approaches (discussion boards online, chats, blogs) that allows end-users to show their opinions online.

In-depth interviews: this technique mainly consists of interviewing end-users, because of their relevance to an innovation process. The tools used for the interview can be multiple: phone call, personal and direct interview, online interview… but the final result will be a collection of insights about an innovation.

Netnography is used and shared by several social sciences when analyzing social reality. It consists of tracking, observing and analyzing the behaviour of selected end-users on the net.

Netnography: This technique belongs to a discipline sister of sociology, ethnography; it’s used and shared by several social sciences when analyzing social reality. It consists of tracking, observing and analyzing the behaviour of selected end-users on the net. Researchers are able to uncover trends, ideas and opinions in internet communities that will be really useful when starting an innovation process design. There is no active participation for the researcher or the end user but an extremely accurate observation of end-users’ patterns.

Qualitative methodologies help innovation managers understand end-users needs through direct observation and communication with participants. These methodologies show innovation managers the range, psychological nature, motivations and needs behind end-users attitudes and their responses to innovative concepts, trends, services or products.

Quantitative methodology describes a social reality by analyzing selected variables, in this case the views of end-users. The process consists of defining the targeted group, to have a clear idea of what we would like to know from the research, establishing the variables to be studied and designing an appropriate questionnaire.

The answers obtained by statistical analysis are used to find out the frequency, trend and distribution of the target group opinions. Quantitative techniques rely on statistical and very descriptive analysis, but not on direct observation. They will be really useful when an innovation manager is looking for a “snap shot” of a selected group, a more descriptive “picture” rather than interpretative. In that way, the innovation manager will know and understand very well his/her group of end-users.

Consensus methodology can be seen as a mixing of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Finally, we have available consensus methodology in order to include end-users at the start point of an innovation process. Consensus methodology can be seen as a mixing of qualitative and quantitative methodologies because it’s based upon a questionnaire as a main tool to gather information but the design of the sample is not based on scientific methodology. Consensus techniques use statistical measurements in order to obtain the consensus degree of a group about a concrete issue.

The most useful consensus techniques in order to include end-users in an innovation process, since the beginning, can be listed as follows:

Delphi: This technique consists of choosing a group of experts for a determinate issue. Each member of the group is not allowed to know the others. A questionnaire is sent to those members and they send back their answers to the researcher. After analyzing the first answers obtained, a second questionnaire is designed, and the process is repeated. The final results consist of choosing the most consensual answers among several topics.

Panel groups: Almost the same as the Delphi technique, because panel groups use the same methodology in order to find out reliable information. The main difference with Delphi technique is that into the panel group, every member knows the other. Summarizing, the group of experts write down their opinions about a topic. Those opinions are discussed and voted and the ones that receive a higher score are the ones to be selected for the final report. It’s interesting for innovation practitioners because offer valuable insights, ranked from a group of experts.

Brainstorming: a brainstorming group is composed by end-users guided by a group leader that will try and propose the topics to be discussed inside the group. After the discussion, the most scored topics are going to be analyzed in order to find out information regarding a new concept, product or service. Brainstorming is a guided research technique, and it will be useful for innovation managers when they have a clear idea of what they would like to find-out about end-users preferences.

The following table summarizes the main features and benefits of sociological techniques for the inclusion of end-users in an innovation process design.

Type of methodology Direct observation from researcher End-user active participation Individual Group Statistical scientific analysis Social scientific analysis
Focus Group Qualitative Yes Yes Yes Yes
In deep interview Qualitative Yes Yes Yes Yes
Netnography Qualitative Yes Yes Yes
Statistical Questionnaire Quantitative Yes Yes Yes
Delphi

Consensus Yes Yes Yes Yes
Panel Groups Consensus Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Brainstorming Consensus Yes Yes Yes Yes

Table 1: Main techniques to include end-users

Again, It should be stressed that the decision on what sociological methodology should be used in an innovation process will depend on the nature of the innovation and the groups targeted by the innovation manager.

All of these methodologies had been used for market studies and consumer behaviour researches for retailing and big consumers markets. Traditionally they have been rarely used by innovation and R&D managers when designing an innovative concept. However, gradually, innovation managers increasingly rely on sources of innovation via open innovation processes that include inter-disciplinary methodologies and groups of end-users. It’s a good moment for sociological techniques.

Conclusions

A sociological perspective and it’s methodologies can provide accurate data and information about end-users by including them in the overall innovation processes.

That information is an extremely useful tool in order to correct and minimize the gap between innovative products or services and the end-users, that means improving the allocation and use of resources in every innovation process.  A success of an innovation process will rely on it and the strategic role of end-users and their inclusion from the beginning of a project.

By Emma Pivetta i Contreras

About the author:


Emma Pivetta is a Sociologist specialized in trends analysis, market research, end-users behavior and communication. She’s been working in open innovation processes, end -users inclusion and trends analysis into several fields, like the analysis  of opinions and cultural consumption trends of public attending to various events and cultural performances, as well as the analysis of the reception of several European policies and programmes by their end-users. She has published several articles about sociology, trends for technical devices introduction into the market and international issues. Emma has also participated in conferences and seminars with papers and presentations related to innovation, trends and EU policies. She’s actually working in R&D projects development  and technology transfer and  she’s also teacher for trends and consumption issues in a business school in Barcelona.

  • Jcouch

    I began this read with a sense of excitement as I whole heartedly agree with the premise that end users should be an integral component of the innovation process.  However, my enthusiasm waned the further I read.  I had expected (and had hoped) for identification and description of projective, participatory research techniques.  To truly understand consumers emotions and latent desires, needs and aspirations, require different techniques.  See http://www.idsa.org/content/content1/beyond-observation

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