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“It seemed like a good idea at the time!” Why users, and not technology, must be the focus for successful innovation

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” I’m sure that we can all relate to this sentiment from our own ideas and experiences where things have not turned out quite how we planned. Perhaps this thought occurred to the founders and backers of Juicero – the start-up that raised US$120 million in funding to create a US$400 juicing-as-a-service solution that turned out to be no more effective than squeezing the prepacked fruit and veg bags with your bare hands. Juicero announced this week that it would be shutting down.

A problem looking for a solution and not a solution looking for a problem

Juicero’s experience seems to be to be a classic case of focusing on the solution, rather than the big problem that you wish to solve and that will attract and delight customers. Immediately zeroing in on exciting new technology risks ending up with innovations nobody wants. Good innovation happens when you start with a clear understanding of the (customer) problem you are trying to solve. This is not always straightforward and the most obvious solution may not be the best. Sometimes a little lateral thinking may be required to find the sweet spot.

In PA’s Digital Innovation Lab we were reminded of this recently when one of our consumer goods clients asked us to build a prototype smart nappy. We initially got very excited about how we could connect various sensors to the cloud, and build new digital services that make life much easier for modern parents. Who wouldn’t want a smart, app-enabled nappy to tell them when their child needed changing?

If you build it, they may not come

Well, it turns out that parents do not require a smart nappy and appear to be managing just fine without such an innovation. A quick scan across a handful of major crowdfunding websites quickly revealed a range of similar products that have failed to attract sufficient funding to move forward. Our initial investigations suggested that parents needed a smart nappy as much as people needed a Juicero.

Imagining the user journeys

Having ruled out a viable consumer market we began to think about other circumstances where having a connected nappy might create some value. This led us to consider two other potential use cases – nurseries and elderly care homes. Both cases are characterised by the need for a single carer to be able to effectively support and monitor the comfort of multiple people. As well as being able to improve the effectiveness of monitoring and response times, we also began to think about how a smart nappy could  streamline stock control and re-ordering, and, with the addition of further sensors, assist with the monitoring of health.

Rethinking the initial idea from a new angle

The process of thinking about and designing the user journeys for smart nappies in the nursery and care home environments led us to rethink and reconsider what a consumer connected nappy aimed at parents might look like. We thought about services that parents might value over and above being alerted when a nappy needed changing, which appeared to hold little appeal. We considered doing some data mining that might build up a prediction of the time until the next change, which could help busy carers plan their day. Similarly such data might provide parents with the reassurance that their child’s comfort was being well looked after at nursery. Health monitoring functionality could also provide reassurance and allow anything anomalous detected to be shared rapidly with a doctor. As with any connected product, there would also be scope for automatic replenishment and re-ordering. Perhaps the smart nappy could also be designed with features to assist with potty training, or a community created to allow parents and carers to connect and share offers and advice.

…and finally we built a rapid prototype to bring it all to life for the client

Having thought in depth about our user experiences in several different environments and settings and created the designs and stories to sketch these out in detail, we then built a rapid prototype to bring it all to life. Using a sensor in the nappy linked to an Internet of Things (IoT) backend on Amazon’s AWS cloud platform, and by creating a simple parent app and dashboard, we were quickly able to bring our stories – and hence the opportunities for the client – to life.

The lesson we took away was also simple – always start with the user and the problem they wish to solve, not the solution. Failed crowd-financing attempts showed that there wasn’t much interest in a smart nappy from a parent’s perspective. But when you looked at it through the lens of improving service at a nursery or care home, the concept became very interesting. It allowed us think beyond simply creating a new product and to consider the potential to transform the client’s business model.

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