Extreme Consumers. How might we uncover our next competitive advantage?

General Electric’s design team were tasked with creating the next generation of home fridges. But how might they innovate in a category where little had happened since the 1960s?

The US appliance manufacturer asked Sense Worldwide to help re-think refrigeration. We investigated American life far beyond the kitchen, to understand how people interacted with anything that dispensed, from a waiter to a one-armed bandit.

We believe that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. So we went out looking for people who could give us clues about the future needs of mainstream consumers.

Alicia Clegg of The Financial Times kindly wrote a story about it…

We spoke to people on the cutting edge of ice, from cocktail mixologists who got ice from arctic lakes too, yes, a water sommelier. Then we brought some of these people together with appliance designers to co-create a broad range of product ideas, from next year’s model to gadgets straight out of science fiction.

Micah Melton has strong opinions about ice. The water to make it must be double-boiled; small dense cubes are best for shaking cocktails; a 9-inch shard of ice chills a gin and tonic to perfection and imparts just the right dilution.

As chef de cuisine at The Aviary, a Chicago cocktails bar, Mr. Melton recently allowed a team of innovation consultants to a US home appliances maker to peek inside the drink kitchen over which he presides. They watched him prepare drinks as he would for friends and listened as he railed against domestic freezers that churn out “terrible” uniform little cubes.

Welcome to the world of extreme consumers – the mavericks, outliers and downright obsessives that may shine a new light on how a product should be developed.

Sense Worldwide, the London-based innovation consultancy that interviewed Mr. Melton for the domestic appliances maker, is among a growing number of consultancies and design teams that draft in “extreme consumers”. While common sense suggests mainstream brands should talk to ordinary people, some product researchers argue that consumers whose expectations go far beyond those of average users can offer richer insights because they are the ones for whom the performance matters most.“If you ask people what they want, often they will look at you a bit blankly because most of us are instinctively quite conservative [and inclined to like what we know],” Sense Worldwide.

Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, recommends seeking out those whose enthusiasm for, or frustration with existing products is greatest. Not only might their take on improvements be better articulated, but they may have improvised a solution.“You are going out and finding people who have developed a product for their own use and shown that it works,” Prof von Hippel says.

When helping a client develop a toilet brush, Sense Worldwide observed consumers with an obsessive compulsion for cleaning their lavatories hygienically. Many wrapped the bristles in toilet paper to minimize contamination, giving Sense Worldwide the idea of flush-away biodegradable covers for the brush-heads.

“Because [the participants] were so interested in the minutiae of cleaning, they were willing to go into details that most people would rather not think about,” Mr. Millar says.

Other mavericks Sense Worldwide has pressed into the service of innovation include ex-convicts for an information technology usability project − while behind bars they had missed out on the smartphone and so viewed it with fresh eyes − and dominatrices who shared tips with a foot care brand on how to avoid blisters:
“We needed people who wear uncomfortable shoes,” Mr. Millar explains.

The range of businesses hoping to learn from users that go to extremes is widening. Sports and fashion brands led the way, but more recent converts include insurers and banks. But will commercial-scale innovations result? Prof von Hippel argues that extreme consumers – from the creators of white-knuckle sports to surgeons who invent better instruments − are already significant innovators. But businesses “need to learn better behavior”. Extreme users invent mainly to satisfy their own needs, with commercialization as an afterthought, he says. Yet would-be collaborators with citizen innovators often “don’t acknowledge their contribution, which makes [them] justifiably annoyed”.

Mr. Melton, for his part, merely hopes the ideas he donated will give rise to better ice-making gadgetry for the home.“The sooner it happens the better,” he says.

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