How to Develop an Endless Source of
Ideas that Sell

image of waterfall

Your bottom line is bottoming out. Your customers are looking elsewhere. Your well of new ideas has run dry. What can you do?

You could turn to your accountant for money-saving schemes, or hire a lawyer to re-structure your business. You could bring in a salesperson to drum up customers.

I’ll bet you wouldn’t think a technique used by designers could help you out of a bad spot.

The technique I’ll outline here is the secret to creating products and services your customers will buy. It’s a powerful way to keep your well of ideas overflowing.

It’s a three-step process anyone can do. And when it’s done right, you can expect impressive results.

The fountain of youth for your business

When your well of new ideas runs dry, design thinking will get it bubbling up again.

Design thinking is a technique that turns your business challenges on their heads, allowing you to see them from a different angle. It helps you discover new products and service that meet the needs of your market. And when your ideas meet a need, they sell.

The secret to creating stuff your customers will buy

Tim Brown of IDEO gave a lecture on design thinking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and explained design thinking with a great analogy.

Brown said that most new business ideas come in through one of three doors:

  • The technical door, which is led by research and development thinking.
  • The business door, which is led by standard value-oriented thinking like return on investment.
  • The people door, which is led by design thinking. Design thinking is a human-centered process.

If you focus on your customers when you’re developing new ideas, you’ll create products and services catered to them, and dramatically increase your chances of success.

Inspiration: Design thinking starts here

The first phase of the design thinking process is inspiration, and that comes from your customers.

Find out what their struggles are, and discover what their daily lives are like. You can gather inspiration through:

  • Observation: What can you see your customers struggling with? What do they complain about on Twitter and Facebook? What questions do you hear again and again?
  • Interviews: Whether face-to-face or on the phone, speaking directly to your customers and asking for candid information about their challenges is invaluable. Speak to users on either extreme: power users and beginners. Your most valuable observations will come from the far ends of the spectrum.
  • Role Play: Ask a friend to “mystery shop” your business, going through every interaction as a customer would. What’s their first contact like? How do they perceive the process? What would improve their experience?
  • Surveys: Online surveys are easy and fast.

Your goal in this phase is to understand the cognitive, emotional, and physical world your customers live in. Gather this information, and use it in the next step.

Ideation: Brainstorming gone wild

In this phase, Brainstorming Rule Number One applies: no idea is too outlandish to consider.

Use a white board, large paper, or a computer file to field ideas. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, gather colleagues for this process. Feed them the initial data you gathered in the inspiration phase, and set them loose.

Narrow down your ideas and pick the strongest one by prototyping.

I know what you’re thinking: prototyping doesn’t sound like something a small business can afford to do, right?

Prototyping your best ideas can be as simple as:

  • Videotaping someone going through the motions of using your idea for a new product or service.
  • Building quick models of physical products using cardboard boxes and tape. Create your product to size and see how it might feel in use.
  • Build a mini-product that gives a taste of the benefits of the full thing. If you’re thinking of creating a membership site, build out a tiny sliver into a teleseminar or a $7 ebook to test the waters.
  • Writing down stories about the journey your customer takes from the moment they realize they have a need, to the moment they discover your new product or service, to their interaction with it, and their post-purchase experience.

Prototyping allows you to visualize what your idea would be like in use. It makes it “real,” and will give you strong clues about whether or not an idea is viable.

Implementation: Make it so

You’ve been inspired by your customers, and you’ve developed a new idea they will love.

The last phase of the design thinking process is about implementation. This is where you will nail down your costs, determine your production needs, and figure out how to execute your best idea.

As you set up a system to deliver your idea, think back on those customer stories you gathered, and the prototyping exercises you did. Use these experiences to develop a marketing story around your product or service that will tap into your customer’s needs. And of course, always focus your marketing around the benefits your customer will experience after purchasing.

A three-part technique that helps businesses soar

Gaining inspiration from your customers, developing ideas based on their needs, and making those ideas a reality are the three phases of design thinking that every business can implement.

Harnessing this creative force will keep your well of ideas overflowing with products and services that connect with your customers needs, and help your business grow.

About the author: Pamela Wilson helps small businesses grow with great design and marketing tips. Learn the basics with her free Design 101 e-course at Big Brand System.

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Comments

  1. Hey Pamela,

    This is an amazing outline. I’m currently in the beginning stages of putting my product together. What you just went over even helps me with direction. Thanks!

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  2. Great points.

    “If you focus on your customers when you’re developing new ideas, you’ll create products and services catered to them, and dramatically increase your chances of success.”

    I think this sums up the post. A business is customers. If you can successfully cater to the needs of it’s customers, you are in business and you can grow.

    Regarding “Surveys: Online surveys are easy and fast” Are they effective?

    Kindest,
    Nabeel

  3. Hi Pamela,

    What a coincidence! Just this morning I wrote a blog post about my forthcoming product ideas and here you are with a formula to ensure I never run out of new ideas!

    Thanks a lot!

    David

  4. Nabeel, I’m a fan of online surveys. Their effectiveness is dependent on how you phrase your questions, whether or not you get people from your target market to respond, and the size of your sample. Offering some kind of small “prize” for taking a survey is a good way to increase participation.

  5. Great article. Also check out Roger Martin’s book, Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.
    I sat in on a Q&A with him at the AGO in Toronto. Brilliant man!

  6. I love the ideas here. The customer-focused approach will always yield results. A mentor told me to find out what people wanted to pay for and then develop your services around it.
    I love that you tell me how to figure it out and get people talking.

  7. The world has changed. We need to open up the line of communication to our customers, create products and services that they want and will pay money for, and then get them to tell everyone they know how good your company is. The companies that get this will survive and thrive, the others will not. In this era of Innovation, companies need to figure how many mice there are BEFORE they build a better mousetrap. Just because you and a few other people think you have a great product does not mean that you will ever sell enough of it to build a company. Our passion is to help companies evolve through this process and make products that are REMARK-ABLE. Thanks for the great content.

  8. I love the timing of this article. Our current brand problem is opening the “People Door” for our ideation and marketing needs.

    It’s not that the door is too heavy to open, but that we must find out where to go once that door is kicked through as an “old-school”-type of institution :p

    Thanks for the article!

  9. Hey @nd, opening the people door should give you lots of good information about what to do next. Your customers will tell you! Even “old school” types can learn new tricks: companies like Procter & Gamble and GE use design thinking to come up with new solutions.

  10. Hi Pamela,

    You’ve given this “left brain” guy a lot to think about. Some of the techniques you suggest are difficult, but not insurmountable, for a hermit that works out of his house, and doesn’t have colleagues to interact with.

    I’ve started challenging myself to get out more and observe people as they buy. Some go generic and some go name brand.

    It’s not difficult to strike up a conversation in a check out line about why they buy brand X instead of brand Y…or what they think of brand Z. People are not afraid to give an opinion. The same thing applies to just about any product, if you can get people talking with you.

    I guess, for those that are working out of the home, you could consider it a free focus group, “one person at a time.”

    If you really listen, you can pick up many things that start to germinate into ideas for that fountain.

    I think your post was great for small businesses…even the one person shop!

    Thanks,

    Steve Benedict

  11. I can relate to the three doors as I try to approach all of the content I produce on other sites by thinking about potential clients through one of those three ways. I’ve just never had it formalized before, and having it formalized makes it so much easier to navigate the “Where do I Start” question.

    I especially like the mini-product idea. Start small and ramp up. This is a great way to guarantee that your research on your potential market is on target.

    Thanks, Pamela!

  12. Jason, the mini product idea came directly from Our Fearless Editor, Ms. Sonia Simone. That wasn’t in the post I submitted, but it’s a fantastic addition!

  13. Pamela,

    Great advice! I especially like the piece on doing interviews.

    Thanks again,
    Jim Hageman

  14. Pamela,

    As usual, you put things clearly and concisely.

    Thanks for the reminders — and action items — for using the “people door” to bring others in to creative process.

    All these techniques also strengthen and reinforce the intuitive process associated with creative thinking. Always a big help!

  15. Pamela,

    Thank you for sharing this process. I can think of several software companies that would benefit from following it. The product developers need to get out of their office and into their customer’s office for a few days.

    For companies creating business content, the one thing many people skip in the brainstorming phase is making an outline. Creating an outline as a pseudo- table of contents is a great way to organize content without spending a lot of time writing, and is an early prototype opportunity. For copywriters, it is helpful to have clients review the outline as an early test of understanding of the key points. It’s much easier to change an outline than it is to reorganize hundreds of words.

    Sadly, most people just start writing and go until their brain is empty. Then they waste a lot of time “editing” to fix the clarity. Making an outline as part of the brainstorming process is an easy way to design usefulness and clarity into the content. Better content nearly always makes implementation more fun (and successful).

  16. Thanks for the bright ideas. I have found that to take it to the next step, a business idea needs to be surveyed and not using focus groups. What I have found successful is one on one surveys. Of course the survey has to be done on a potential buying audience, not your mother who loves everything you do. If the idea proves out in survey, then roll ahead with the product creation. If the survey step is left out, then the product release will be the first survey and if it doesn’t get traction the business has wasted all that product development money. @doughay

  17. The people door is where the emotional sales are. This is where you can take a mind-numbing problem in a person’s life and make it much better or easier for them.

    Emotional selling is the way to go.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  18. Great stuff Pamela, I’ve been curious about the ideo method for some time.

    One question though. Where does “testing” come into play. Is it a part of “prototyping” or does it have its own stage with an associated methodology.

    Simply, when do you get (at least) a preliminary feel of market acceptance?

    Thanks!

  19. Stanford, as I understand it, prototyping *is* how you test within the design thinking methodology. They recommend testing in a way that allows your testers to experience the product because that gives you the most accurate feedback.

  20. This post is laid out perfectly! Implementing a listening strategy will help develop relevant products. Product ideas can comes from repetitive questions ask by my clients or prospect. So, take notes of what is being ask.

  21. This is a good post. I’ve been trying to show people how they can reach a larger audience through Fireviews, and I decided to incorporate some of your ideas in my own approach. Thanks

  22. I love these three steps for creating products using the people-centered door. Thanks so much for breaking them down and presenting them so clearly. This is very helpful right now as I get ready to launch my new project. I’d very much like to incorporate the people-centered approach and guarantee that I’m giving my audience exactly what they want.

  23. Pamela,
    This is a great reminder of things like focus groups, and story boarding. It also motivates me to do an updated survey of my patients and practice members. Thanks!

  24. Very simple, yet a unique post that manages to inspire once again.

  25. heya Pamela,
    thank you for coming up with this valuable post.
    indefinitely, the process that you have laid out somewhat I find it similar with what I have learnt throughout my entire Uni-life of majoring in architecture.
    coming up with fresh new ‘architecture’ idea is very critical to ‘pass’ of course =P
    i can really relate to how this works and indefinitely it is very effective. at times, when i am really really stuck on ideas, i would source out inspiration from browsing through some of the architecture design ‘reference’ i find. we don’t ‘copy’ , but we ought to improve and improvise it to suit out criteria. =)
    What i have learnt as well throughout my years as an architecture student is that , you can have the most brilliant of idea, the most aesthetic looking design but without the ability to present and deliver your ideas out efficiently to your audience ( in this case, the lecturers and moderators ), your idea is as good as nothing..vise versa of course. i have seen my fellow mates coming up with ‘not so brilliant ideas’ ..but he nails it with superb presentation skills. =P
    therefore, implementation in this case is very important. you gotta know how to just voice it out and persuade them to buy your idea… but it isn’t just hard pushing and saying “BUY THIS , BUY THAT”, its the way of how you are able to convince them and make them understand.. =)
    it takes time to master but once you do, it will be a very powerful marketing skill to have.
    cheers

  26. Thanks Pamela! GREAT info. This is one of those posts I’ll find myself coming back to and re-reading.

    With all the great info. here I know I’ll come up with a bunch of ideas. I wonder if you’ll consider another post to help us deal with too many ideas LOL

  27. WOW Pamela! What a great article. I especially love the section on prototyping your idea, in particular building a mini-product. It may be a good idea as well, instead of selling the mini-product, offering it for free with the intention of it selling the full product line.
    Also, I really like the idea of the white board. I am a visual person and just realized that I am not utilizing that quality of myself to the fullest by using a whiteboard and writing things down in front of me to to see. It’s important to note how you process information the most effectively and use that to your advantage.
    Thanks so much for sharing this great article!

  28. Hi Pamela!

    Thanks so much for sharing so many wonderful ideas for building a people-centered business! My “peeps” are busy mamas and tend not to have time to write even a quick comment, let alone detailed feedback, so I really like the idea of engaging my friends to be “mystery shoppers” and give me an honest assessment of their experience when they go on my website. Thanks again for super-helpful article!

  29. Excellent break-down of how to approach the problem. And I couldn’t agree more. If a product meets a real need it can’t help but be a success.

    Taking the time to work through all the necessary steps may seem time consuming, but in the end it’s worth it if you can develop something that others can really benefit from.

  30. Great article, Pamela.

    I really resonated with this material. I’m currently re-reading A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. In it he says that the future belongs to creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.

    It seems to me that design thinking is an integral part of the shift we are seeing in how businesses are formed, and how they become successful through the act of co-creation between those who offer the business and those who want what the business offers.

  31. Reading this post has given me confidence in my company’s latest service and product offerings–while our development process happened organically, it consisted of very similar steps. This post reinforced to me that it’s essential to see from a “designer” perspective, so that you are creating something that customers are already looking for and are eager to buy.

  32. Like everyone else here, I very much appreciate the outline and find it very inspiring and useful.

    I think one aspect that most business sometimes overlook when optimizing for increased sales is the product price. An effective competitor analysis should be considered when developing new ideas to market.

    Finding ways to make your product cheaper than your competitors while maintaining trust and security within your site will always help boost sales.

  33. These are some great points. Really gets you thinking about how you can improve your business. Good Piece

  34. I love this post. What a great insight to break through stale thinking. One thing I would add, though, is that the client must must also circle back and engage with the consumer once again to assure the new design and/or product is in line with consumer perceptions. Just a good idea to close the loop.

  35. Thanks Pamela, great article.
    It’s nice to read something that articulates the process of putting ideas into a product – as we all know that is the tougher part of the equation.

  36. It just shows that this article is really interesting because of the comments. And the reason behind that is that the topic is about new and endless ideas that people can come up with. Finding ways and coming up with new and endless ideas is really important and I highly agree with the article and the comments. Maybe that is why there are also a lot of comments is that people are still having a lot of ideas that they come up with everyday. And I think that is a really good sign because development would never stop especially in the internet.

    This is a great discussion and content!

    Alex

  37. Thanks Pamela,

    a good point is MIT’s distinstion of the cases
    technical door – business door – people door

  38. When it comes to inspiration I create a huge spider diagram with hundreds of offings with words to write about. Usually keeps my ideas coming for months on loads of topics.
    Stuart

  39. I just went through this process for creating my new product (a workshop) and I love it! Starting with the customer, what they need, what their challenges are, what they want — that’s the ultimate.

    I love your idea of a quick model or a mini product. Prototyping, creating a pilot project, anything that let’s you get your ideas out to a small audience for testing and refinement is great.

    I was talking to a coaching colleague a few days ago who wrote a book and a certification training program based on a pilot project and collaboration with her students. She had a rough outline and ask 10 people, “Would you like to co-create this with me?” Then she held a pilot workshop with those 10 people and they helped her fill in the blanks and fill out her outline, testing and tweaking along the way.

    So often we think we have to do it alone. Yikes! Our customers are often very comfortable with a mini product or a pilot program (just ask the Teaching Sells folks; I was in their charter program while they were creating it).

  40. Great post!

    This reminds me a lot of something we do in software development called User Centric Design (or just UCD). It’s the same kind of principles, and the Inspiration and Ideation suggestions listed above are all accepted UCD practices. UCD is a really key part of making successful software, I’m glad to see it being promoted elsewhere :)

  41. Thanks for sharing this Pamela. I really like what you’ve pointed out about building a mini product to test the waters. Sometimes it’s better to sell low-cost, $7-$17 reports as it’s very affordable and people won’t think twice to buy the product if they know that it’s very valuable.

    Having several passive income streams selling low-cost products bring stability to your business.

    Kind regards,

    Gary

  42. This is a great article. In my experience, businesses and marketers shortchange two things — interviewing customers and making prototypes. Both take extra time and effort, so they get brushed over. However, they are both critical for marketing and business success.

    Does everyone agree? Let me know by visiting my blog and leaving a message. I’d love to hear from you.

    Joseph

  43. Great piece! I’m a designer and this nicely summarizes what design is about: recognizing what needs to be better and getting excited about it, determining how to make it better, and then doing it in such a way that also excites others. It’s the basic fundamental process required to create, make or build anything, including a business.

  44. Awesome post, Pamela! I currently have an ebook ready and waiting to go, but fear of failure is always ever present. With your tips for more endless ideas, more ebook ideas are coming to mind and my fear of releasing the first one are going away. Thanks for the great advice!

  45. With a new project about to kickoff, the timing of this post couldn’t be better.

  46. What a brilliant post Pamela! I just couldn’t agree with you more! There is just no better way to develop a product or service than to start with the needs of your customers. Ultimately, if you solve their problems…you can’t fail!

  47. Pamela,Thanks for giving great piece of advice.

  48. Pamela, your article is helping me exactly at the right time. While I am busy developing re-launching plan for our products.

    Thanks.

  49. Some great tips and inspiration thanks again guys

  50. I love the ideas shared on thie post. The customer-focused approach will always yield good results!
    Regards,
    Sandra

  51. Excellent ideas.

  52. Thank you! I have been researching how to take part of our field sales to the next level..identifying AMO, alignment..focus on customers needs….this gives me a foundation for what i previously referred to as just ‘survey the customer’

  53. Thank you so much for your article. I have been selling on Etsy for awhile now and my frustrations have to do with the fact that Etsy who won’t acknowledge my products. I’ve been trying for years to get Etsy to recognize that Eid should be categorized with Christmas and Hanukah as a major holiday, but they keep ignoring my pleas: http://www.etsy.com/forums_thread.php?thread_id=5813888

    So my question is: how do we get the companies that continuously highlight the same products over and over again to even acknowledge your work?

  54. Great article !

    It is just about to be 2011 and I needed a good injection of common sense ! Your article provided that !
    Thanks !

  55. Thank you for reminding me to get my idea fountain bubbling again! I suppose it’s time to get started again, this article provides a great foundation.

  56. “The ideas to sell”
    It is like the magic wish well.
    Directly to my Firefox Bookmarks.

    Thank you very much to share.
    Unbelievable article. Very nice indeed.

  57. Great article. Also check out Roger Martin’s book, Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.
    I sat in on a Q&A with him at the AGO in Toronto. Brilliant man!

  58. Thank you for a inspirational post! I’ve been trying to get a better grasp on “design thinking” the past months and your article summed it all up beautifully.

    Regards,

    Juan

  59. Thankyou i love the ideas shared on the post. Implementing a listening strategy will help develop relevant products. Product ideas can comes from repetitive questions ask by my clients or prospect. So, take notes of what is being ask.

  60. I like the helpful info you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I’m quite sure I will learn many new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!

  61. What a coincidence! Just this morning I wrote a blog post about my forthcoming product ideas and here you are with a formula to ensure I never run out of new ideas!

    Thanks a lot!

    David

  62. Thanks for sharing Pamela!

    Your article is very helpful, desing thinking it´s the missing piece from the puzzle. I´m planning a new proyect for my website and I will take your advise. Many Ideas came from friends and costumers ans now i´ll create some prototypes.

    Alicia

  63. Great post, thanks for sharing Pamela!

    I´m on my way to start a small e-bussines and your advice comes on a perfect timing. I have lots of new things to try now. I will bookmark you blog and come back to check new articles.

  64. I like your idea of a quick model or a mini product. Prototyping, creating a pilot project, anything that let’s you get your ideas out to a small audience for testing and refinement is great.

  65. These three steps are undoubtedly is a formula that must be taken into account, together with our marketing action plan to develop products or services of our business but always bearing in mind that these should be able to solve a need or desire to fill a of our customers, we always focus on them, help them, and never create a product or service thinking of getting sales, but always on helping our customers.

    Pamela have given the target, these tips are great and now part of my arsenal of marketing tools.

    Thanks for sharing these great tips, personally put into practice immediately to develop new services to my business

    Best Regards

    Omar Jareño