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Don’t research. Co-create.

Have you ever heard a start-up attribute its success to a particularly revealing survey? Or seen an innovative product idea emerge from a corporate focus group? Probably not.

Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, world famous innovators, both outwardly rejected the idea of gathering and listening to consumer feedback. I don’t blame them.

People are (mostly) unimaginative. We like to think in categories and realities. We’re not particularly good at predicting our own behaviour. We also find it difficult to imagine possibilities outside our existing frames of reference. And when it takes time and effort, we give up.

This is because of reference bias – we feel the need to relate one thing to something else familiar, even if that relationship is false and strained.

Try this little exercise, for example: In two minutes, explain what an iPhone is (and how it works) to your great, great, great grandma. Note, she also doesn’t know what a telephone, computer or the internet are.

Tricky, right? Aggravating, even. But it serves to illustrate a crucial point: without our typical frames of reference, we struggle to make sense of and articulate difficult concepts and ideas.

Market research and innovation

Traditional market research tools like consumer surveys and focus groups are meant to support incremental improvements to existing products and services. But they only work within existing frames of reference. In other words, market research works when the ‘thing’ you’re researching already exists in some concrete, tangible form. And that’s where Henry and Steve start to get frustrated.

The problem is, when it comes to disruptive innovation, that ‘thing’ you’re looking for consumer feedback on doesn’t exist yet. You’re not just improving a known product, you’re building something that’s never been seen or experienced before. It takes a lot of mental effort to conceptualise that product, and a typical market research participant, doing a typical market research exercise, just wouldn’t get there.

Imagine you’re working on an exciting new product, smart clothing for babies. You believe it’s going to completely revolutionise how parents interact with and care for their kids, but you want to learn more about what your consumers need it to do.

Do you expect great insights to come out of sending a survey to 100 parents about their preferred smart clothing features? Do you think a focus group with a handful of bewildered parents will guide your product development in the right direction?

Unbelievably, most companies still take the same market research tools they use to refine existing products and services and try to use them to explore consumer reactions to new-to-world innovations. Not a good move.


There’s still value in engaging your customers early and often in the innovation process, you just need a different approach – co-creation.

Co-creation differs from market research in three main ways: who you involve in your innovation process, what you do with them and how you interact with them. These differences can transform your consumer research to produce nuanced, meaningful insights that drive your product or service to success.


Co-creation involves alpha consumers in the innovation process, from ideation all the way to launch. Alpha consumers are creative, articulate people who have the problem you’re trying to solve and bring valuable perspectives on how to solve it. They’re not your average consumers.

For example, we recently worked with a group of serious runners on wearable technology. But these runners were UX designers, software engineers, running coaches and fashionistas. They were all hyper-aware of their unmet needs, brought valuable expertise to the problem, were able to think beyond their typical frames of reference and were highly engaged throughout the process.

In a way, your alpha consumers act as amateur product developers. They’re extensions of your product team and they’re in it for the long haul. You might incentivise them with small rewards, but their motivation comes from a deeper place. They’re part of an overall shift towards a democratisation of product development, a blurring of lines between producers and consumers as more people want to get involved in the making of things.

For your alpha consumers, your success is their success. If you play it right, they’ll provide valuable inputs during your product development and act as early evangelists, multiplying your market impact when you launch.


Co-creation isn’t focus groups, those clusters of semi-interested consumers sitting around a table without real-world context. Instead, it involves designing intelligent exercises relevant to each stage of the innovation process, from upstream ideation, to downstream product definition and go-to-market options.

Ideation exercises simulate real-life situations, borrowing from ethnographic research techniques, such as going on run-alongs and shop-alongs, and behavioural psychology, such as putting your alpha consumer through habit change exercises. They optimise your chances of getting authentic feedback and breakthrough insight.

On the downstream side, co-creation doesn’t just try to imagine your non-existent product, alpha consumers help design and build early mock-ups and lo-fi prototypes. That means they can react to proofs of concept and prioritise features.


The interaction you have with your alpha consumer is markedly different, so the skills you need are more those of an empathetic entrepreneur rather than a market research professional.

Contact the growth and innovation strategy team