How Customers Saying “No” Can Become a Consumer Experience “Yes”

Repeat after me: “Your customer doesn’t have the answers!” I thought we put this to rest fifteen years ago, but apparently there are a number of companies still trying to create innovative consumer experiences by asking people what they want. Consumers want what their neighbors have. They have no idea what’s next–they consume!


Repeat after me: “Your customer doesn’t have the answers!”


I thought we put this to rest fifteen years ago, but apparently there are a number of companies still trying to create innovative consumer experiences by asking people what they want. Consumers want what their neighbors have. They have no idea what’s next–they consume!

starbucks store

Asking customers what they want blinds companies and prevents them from delivering innovative consumer experiences. Traditional research methods are limited for two key reasons: 1) people’s existing reality limits their understanding of future possibilities; and, 2) people cannot envision how the parts come together equal more than the whole. Consumer experience innovation is based on deep consumer insights, but those insights rarely come from asking them what they want. Malcolm Gladwell asserts: “Asking someone to explain [their behavior and intent] is not only a psychological impossibility…but it biases them in favor of the conservative, in favor of the known over the unknown.”

Imagine twenty years ago asking a room full of moms if they’d be interested in paying $4.50 for a cup of coffee. Or even better, what if they were told it wasn’t for the coffee it was for the coffee experience. We would never have had Starbucks. Fifteen years later, imagine asking moms if they’d like to have cute stuffed animals with that $4.50 cup of coffee that has become central to their existence. They say “yes” and the great erosion of the coffee experience begins.

Every industry has its issues it gets hung up on. Hospitality has many–shower soap is just one of them. Determining whether to switch shower soap from a bar to a bulk dispenser consumes an inordinate amount of energy. Switching would save a hotel over $4 a day per room. But if your ask consumers, they’ll tell you they prefer bar soap. They will describe how bulk dispensers remind them of truck stops and how gross those bathrooms are and how once in a truck stop… A lot of companies would listen to this and stick with the bar soap. It’s easy. The customer said they wanted it.

starwood soap

Starwood didn’t listen. It redefined bulk dispensing by putting its Bliss branded spa products in a redesigned dispenser and connecting it to an overall story of cheap-chic modern travel. In the process they enhanced the customer experience and pocketed $4 per room.

So what do you do? We need consumer insights, but we have to find better ways to get them. We need to model existing behaviors, attitudes and values and then apply what we know about future trends to create experiences that surprise and delight consumers. We need to leverage the archetypal models of Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell because they’ve done some pretty deep thinking on the subject of peoples needs, meaning and storytelling. Their frameworks allow us to understand hierarchy of needs, define consumer journeys and develop meaningful character. When we do ask consumers for feedback, we need to help them envision the future by building scenarios and prototyping early in the process. These tools are no less rigorous than traditional market research tools. Based on a combination of scenario planning, social science and decision management practices, these tools create frameworks that are necessary to drive consumer experience innovation.


It is often at the moments when the customer says not to do something that an opportunity to innovate exists. What new consumer insights tools are you developing to drive consumer experience innovation?

Over the last several years the innovation discussion hasshifted from a focus on product and business innovation to consumerexperience. Companies are increasingly interested in creating value bydelivering better consumer experiences, but many are not quite sure howto get there. The results have ranged from a proliferation ofApple-like Genius Bars to frustrated project teams whose projects nevermake it to market. These companies are finding it surprisinglydifficult to deliver great consumer experiences. This week,Steve McCallion explores some of the challenges companies face whentrying to deliver consumer experience innovation.

Read Steve McCallion’s blog Beyond the Widget
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Steve McCallion is a skilledinnovation architect and brand strategist with a rare balance of designsensibility and strategic thinking. He has led groundbreaking workincluding redefining Umpqua Bank’s role as an anchor for communityprosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio’s award-winning experiencefor the “iPod fatigued” and working with real estate developers GerdingEdlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods. His other clientsinclude Xerox, Black & Decker, Whirlpool, FedEx, McDonald’s,Coleman, Kenwood, and Compaq.

Steve’s primary charge is to fosterZiba’s consumer experience practice. He founded the company’saward-winning Design Research and Planning practice group which hasdeveloped many proprietary research and design planning methodologiesthat have helped numerous clients understand the essence of theircustomers, win design awards, obtain patents and succeed in the market.He was named as one of Fast Company’s Masters of Design in 2006.

About the author

Steve McCallion, executive creative director at design and innovation consultancy Ziba Design, is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist. His groundbreaking work includes redefining Umpqua Bank’s role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio’s award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued," and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods