Customers: threat or menace?

Maybe it's just me, but I seem to have bumped into a lot of people in the technology industry who think that innovation and customer sensitivity go together as well as Batman and the Joker. (Spoiler alert: Innovation is the good guy.) In this worldview, customers can't understand innovative ideas, because there's no reference to them in reality as it exists today. Innovation is just too...Er...Um...Well, it's too damn innovative for the average person to understand.

According to a different point of view, as expressed in this post on Derek Morrison's blog, if you spend time with customers, you'll find inspiration for new ways of helping them that you never would have conceived on your own. Customers are not objects to be overcome; instead, they are wellsprings that you can help channel.

Which is right? It depends. On the one hand, I've seen people fail to understand Big Ideas until they saw it in action, at which point, they loved it. The iPod was one of those Big Ideas. XML was another, something that a surprising number of developers didn't get when they first heard about it.

However, this approach has its risks. Failing to make the step from the Big Idea to the Mundane Details is one of the most  problems. For example, there are different subcomponents of the XML specification, such as XPATH and XSLT, that could have been designed better. I've used them, and as an XML enthusiast, they left me with the strong impression that they were not designed with too many real-life use cases in mind.

On the other hand, innovation through observation isn't free of risk. Target users may know what problems they face, but they may have trouble describing them (or what a solution might look like). Consequently, the technologist may have just as hard a time getting out of the swamp of  problems, since they may not understand the landscape any better than the users do.

Still, problems with one approach are no excuse for failing to use it. These two techniques for stimulating innovation--what pops into my own skull, what I see happening in the reality I don't fully understand yet--buttress each other.

To disagree with Derek for a moment, incremental changes can be "game-changing." In the search for the Big Idea, you might miss these profound opportunities. A couple of year ago, I heard a presentation from Patrick Whitney, a faculty member at the IIT Institute of Design, in which he described how the inspiration to add a better grip to a potato peeler revived innovation in one of the least likely areas of technology. It took one person watching another person peel potatoes to have this multi-million dollar idea.