Innovate by watching your customers

“Here, Dad, please open!” my daughter pleaded, pressing a lollipop eagerly into my hand. It was a Beacon Fizz Pop. Cherry flavour. “Why do you keep choosing these suckers if you can’t open them?” I asked her, bemused. “Because they’re yummy”, she replied, as if the answer was self-evident. “Come on Dad, what’s taking you so long?”

This ritual was all too familiar. As the father of two young kids, I spend my Sundays doing the kids party circuit and so I’ve got a pretty good handle on the variety of sugary junk that fill the plastic bowls on the tables. Sweets, chocolates, chips, popcorn, and suckers.

By far the most popular brand of suckers is Beacon Fizz Pops. Maybe parents buy that brand because it brings back fond memories of their own childhood, or maybe it’s good value for money. Either way, I’ve opened my fair share of these suckers. And I struggle every time. They are impossible to open. In theory, you should be able to simply untwist the wrapper, but the glue holding it together is so strong that this strategy is useless. So you either have to use your teeth – which is what most kids do – or you have to tear the wrapper apart at the side and then pull the broken bit over the top.

Whenever I’m trying valiantly to open one, I always wonder whether the executives at Tiger Brands have ever been to a kid’s party. Surely they’ve seen kids struggling to open their product? Surely they’ve seen adults struggling as well?

Then I imagine a meeting in the boardroom where the finance executive is putting pressure on the operations head to cut costs. “Come on, we need to reduce the cost of production. Can you source the raw materials cheaper?” “Well, we can get the glue for the wrappers from China instead of from the local supplier. That will shave two cents off the cost of a sucker.” “So what are you waiting for?” barks the finance executive, “Do it!”

No-one cares about the fact that the glue from China is so strong that it makes it impossible to open the wrapper. In fact, most likely no-one even knows.

It amazes me how many consumer products fall into this trap. For example, Parmalat manufactures a range of fat-free yoghurt, which is clearly targeted at women.The problem is that the plastic lid is designed in a way that makes it impossible for a woman with long nails to open without breaking a nail. How do I know this? Because my wife buys that range, and she breaks a nail every time she tries to break the seal on a new tub. So now whenever she wants to open a new tub, she brings it to me. Surely the manufacturers should check that their target market can actually open their product?

All it takes is one observation of a real live woman opening their product to make it obvious. And yet clearly, they haven’t done it. Why not?

One of the simplest and yet most overlooked ways to innovate is to observe your customers actually using your product. Product developers make numerous assumptions about how customers should be using the product, but this very often differs from how they’re actually using it. Such observation-fuelled insight most often leads to small improvements in the product design, but it can also lead to radical improvements that redefine a category.

When the legendary design firm IDEO was tasked with coming up with a new design for a kids toothbrush, they started off by observing kids actually brushing their teeth. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that kids are smaller versions of adults, so kids toothbrushes should simply be smaller versions of adult toothbrushes. However, by actually watching kids brush their teeth, the IDEO team quickly noticed the “fist phenomenon”. Adults have manual dexterity and so are able to hold the toothbrush between their fingertips. Kids, on the other hand, are less coordinated and so hold their toothbrushes in their fists.

Now if you’re holding your toothbrush in your fist, then you don’t need thinner handles, you actually need fatter handles. The insight that smaller hands need fatter toothbrushes seems counter-intuitive until you see them in use. So IDEO designed a chunky kids toothbrush for Oral B which over the next 18 months became the top-selling kids’ toothbrush in the world. Then everybody started copying the design and today you’ll struggle to find any kids toothbrushes that are not chunky and fun for kids to hold.

Can you remember the first time you saw an “upside-down” ketchup bottle, with the lid at the bottom rather than the top? You probably thought “That’s a great idea! Now I don’t have to hold the nearly-empty bottle upside down and hit the top repeatedly to get the last bit of ketchup to run down to the bottom.” Why did it take decades for the bottle designers to bring this innovation to market? If they had simply watched how people actually use ketchup, then this insight would have been obvious.

The smart folks at IDEO said, “Innovation begins with an eye“. They’re right – one of the simplest and most effective ways to innovate is to go out and observe your customers using your product in their own environment. And don’t get frustrated when they use it “incorrectly”, or in a way that wasn’t intended when you designed the product.

Take that as a cue to improve the product so that it makes your customers’ lives easier. They’ll thank you for it, and so will your bottom line.

Dr Gavin Symanowitz is an actuary and founder of, where he created the Ideas4Results Programme. He regularly gives talks on innovation topics such as how to bring innovation into your job. He is also the founder of

This article originally appeared in the 15 August 2013 issue of Finweek.