No, I’m not saying that artists make bad inventors, or that inventors shouldn’t have an artistic side to them. But, there is a very important distinction between developing something for yourself, and developing something for a broader group of users. In many ways, that distinction parallels the differences between ‘art’ and ‘design’.
In a fundamental way, art is about pleasing the artist first. It is an expression of the artist’s feelings, needs, emotions, or how they view the world. It expresses something that the artist wants or needs to express. Creating a piece of artwork fulfills a need that the artist has.
Design, however, is about meeting the needs of others. When designing a good business card, poster, or brochure, for example, the designer should focus on ensuring that the reader receives the right communication. The communication piece can certainly be well stylized and attractive, but first and foremost it should communicate the message, not the designer’s mood or their personal view of the world.
Similarly, when inventing or developing new products, the inventor should be careful not to simply create a product for himself. The products which have the greatest chance of succeeding are those which meet the needs of a large group of people. This, of course, seems quite obvious, but in my career I’ve seen a surprising number of people create products around their own needs and interests without considering what the broader target market might need from their product.
When I was running an industrial design team, one of my responsibilities was to select and hire design interns. I saw many students suffer from this problem (art instead of design) as reflected in their portfolios and the projects that they were proud of. They had often developed products based on what they, personally, would want to buy. Kids that were into snowboarding designed snowboarding stuff, kids that were into music designed speakers, and so forth.
There’s nothing wrong with designing snowboarding products or speakers, but these kids were taking the easy way out; they were missing out on one of the important elements of good product development: researching and understanding the target market. Because they were already enthusiasts in the product category, these students often did little or no market research, and they failed to expand their thinking in ways that could have made their product concepts much better.
Inventors (and executives and product managers in established companies) often fall into a similar trap. They create a product based on a problem or challenge that they are personally familiar with, WITHOUT expanding their understanding of how other people experience the same problem. Inventing a solution to a problem you have, and using that solution as the basis for a new product is a great strategy, but it is very dangerous to stop there.
Principal, Product QuickStart
They had often developed products based on what they, personally, would want to buy.
It’s important to consider a few things: How many other people experience the same or similar problems? How do they manage the problems now? What would they want in a product that is different from what the inventor wants in the product? Does the cost of the product solution make sense when compared to the product or opportunity (do you have a $20 solution to a $3 problem)?
Of course, developing a product with only yourself in mind can work out. Sometimes, inventors get lucky and their experiences and needs are a reasonable microcosm of the experiences and needs of the broader market. In this case, even if little or no market research was conducted, the product can be a success because it happens to align with market needs. But maybe the product could be even better with a broader market understanding; perhaps the addition of a simple feature or the use of a particular material or color could have increased the size of the market, and led to more product sales.
From my perspective, if you’re creating a product with only yourself in mind, then you are really building a piece of art – it meets your need to create something, but it may or may not resonate with enough people to be a success in the marketplace. A much better approach is to use your inspiration as a starting point, and then refine the product concept by evaluating it against the broader needs of your target market. You may learn more about the problem you are trying to solve, and you may end up with an even better product concept than what you started with.
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