Break-through Products driven by LACK of Expertise

“…outsiders often present the most-interesting answers to complex problems, not despite their lack of expertise, but because of it.”
(“Finding the Next Edison”, The Atlantic  Magazine, Jan-Feb, 2014, p24.)
Just as Janine and I were putting the finishing touches on another ethnographic / deep immersion study, I came across this quotation in The Atlantic magazine (and, yes, I do fall behind in my reading as several stacks of magazines in the den will attest to).  This insight instantly hit me as a great description of the advantage of engaging researchers to conduct ethnographic studies.
(An ethnographic study- sometimes called an in-depth immersion study- is a very detailed look at how a small number of carefully selected consumers use a product category.  These studies often take place in consumers’ homes and always engage them for several days.  Researchers or investigators photograph, videotape, inventory, ask a lot of questions, and most importantly – WATCH and LISTEN.  We sometimes also go shopping with consumers to best understand the purchase decision making process.) 
Our last ethnographic project concerned floor cleaning tools, a market we certainly were not experts on and one that doesn’t exactly scream “fascinating.”  But here we were in people’s homes photographing and taking inventory of their floor cleaning armories and watching them clean their floors. 
So, when we starting delving into the analysis and began to study the diaries, inventories, and online surveys our consumers completed, we asked ourselves the critical question “are we leaning anything actionable here?”  We quickly knew the answer was a resounding YES!  We identified an eight tier hierarchy of needs.  And we identified a fairly long list of “pain points” – which of course means “opportunity” for designers and marketers.   In short, we delivered a new way of looking at potentially hundreds of floor cleaning tool variations.
The difference between our effort and the outside creator the Atlantic article was referring to?  The consumer.  The ideas we brought out were not ours.  We simply created a situation in which consumers voiced their thoughts and feelings and we listened in a formalized way – a way that enabled us to organize consumers’ habits, practices, wants, and needs.   We asked them to imagine products that would solve their problems and they did.  Your company may be full of super star designers – but if those designers are creating products without the consumer, the products will likely fall short and not deliver/meet consumer needs.  It’s that simple - listen to the consumers and make what they want.  Which is also a pretty good definition of market research, by the way!