We’ve written about the importance of hiring creative people  and fostering a culture that promotes risk-taking.  But these should not be read to imply that all transformative ideas spring fully formed from the heads of smart, properly managed designer and engineers. Innovation requires a relentless pursuit of new information, and that pursuit can lead to unexpected places.

Seeing the world from the other side of product development — the customer’s points of view — is the responsibility of our Insights department. Broadly speaking, Insights refers to researching and identifying opportunities in the earliest phases of development; testing prototypes to ensure that both form and function will satisfy the intended market; and in some cases, fine-tuning the marketing campaign. Our project teams always includes an Insights department lead, and that person stays with the project as it moves through the Vertical Innovation process.

“Sometimes we have a specific problem we’re solving,” says Heidi Carrion, a senior member of our Insights team. “Sometimes we’re just trying to match the client to opportunities.”

Finding new markets

Reynolds, the aluminum wrap manufacturer, wanted to expand its product line and turned to Nottingham Spirk for input.

Extensive interviews with people who cook a lot — conducted in homes and at our Innovation Center — revealed great frustrations with the kitchen and bakeware cleanup process.

The NS team shared a variety of ideas with users and one of the concepts that rose to the top involved the combination of foil wrap with parchment paper in the same sheet. The Reynolds team was able to produce many small runs of foil-parchment paper for testing. The result, after more rounds of feedback from focus groups, was Reynolds Pan Lining Paper, a single sheet offering a durable, non-stick surface that can also be molded around the edges of pans for baking and thrown away after.

Another company sought our help in finding new opportunities in home fragrances. We visited eight homeowners who had signed up to be part of a survey and asked them a wide range of questions, mostly about their home decorating choices. We also asked them to rate some existing home fragrance products.

Heidi Carrion

Heidi Carrion

The scores were not important; we just wanted to hear how they talk about their homes, to gain some insight into the factors that come into play when people make decisions about improving their living spaces.

“It’s mainly for us in the beginning,” Carrion explains, “but we’re also looking at it differently than the client would, because our designers and engineers are coming along. It’s about trying to understand decision processes and what the customer journey looks like.”

Fresh eyes

HALO™, inventor of the SleepSack wearable blanket for infants, was founded by a couple who lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The company wanted to bring more baby-safety products to market, and came to us for help. We talked to new parents about sleeping (and not-sleeping) arrangements in their homes. Predictably, they expressed the wish that they and their babies could get back to sleep quickly after the inevitable disruptions. Some mentioned co-sleeping, or sharing one’s bed with an infant. This is not only discouraged by most pediatricians in the U.S., it’s a polarizing topic, laced with strongly held views about family bonds, psychological development and, of course, safety. But we couldn’t shake the sense that an opportunity lay in that uncharted territory.

After a lot more research, we developed the HALO™ Bassinest™,  an infant bed that swivels over the parents’ bed, providing enough closeness for sound sleep and enough separation for safety. The BassiNest was awarded the JPMA Innovation Award at the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas.

The Bassinest™ program was an example of using our inexperience in a market as an asset. With no preconceived notions about what the market would accept, we pressed on into areas that others couldn’t or wouldn’t explore. This is not a reckless process; if at any point we determined that we could not bring a safe, affordable product to market in a reasonable time, we would have gleaned what lessons we could from the work and moved on.

Insights drives everything

Do you remember the CueCat? Released in 1999, it was the first in-home bar code scanner. It attached to a computer via USB cable, and the idea was that people would scan bar codes in print ads to get more information about products, movies, etc. Investors poured $185 million into its development, and it was a complete disaster. In 2010, TIME included the CueCat in its list of the 50 Worst Inventions Ever: “How [scanning] was easier than a typing a link, the company never did answer.”

We know that design and engineering can change lives. But the most gorgeously designed or ingeniously engineered product is worthless if no one needs it. User Insights, the relentless pursuit of information, even when you think you have all the answers, guides everything we do.

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