Requirements, Market Research, Entertainment, and the Art of the Possible

Requirements, Market Research, Entertainment, and the Art of the PossibleEditor’s note: In this series, we share personal innovation stories from a new book by Luis Solis; Innovation Alchemists: what every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer

Consumer products and popular entertainment can accelerate the innovation process in ways that traditional market research techniques fall short

From my days with the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) to my experiences running Maga Design, requirements have been an ever-present concern. The nature of these requirements has certainly changed, but the basic need to determine and fulfill customer requirements has remained very much the same.

Life would be simple if we always knew exactly what customers wanted and could just go about the business of satisfying these wants. The traditional approach has been to determine requirements through market research.

Sounds reasonable enough.

Nothing is ever so easy, however, and no less a visionary than Steve Jobs maintained that customers often don’t know what they want. In fact, Jobs was famously quoted as saying that innovators need to be smart enough to envision the products of the future and SHOW customers what they want. In other words, innovators need to be adept at the art of the possible.

No place is requirements gathering as important as it is in the military, because the products being delivered are not the latest iPhones or tablets, but rather new airplanes, ships, and weapons — technology whose success or failure is literally a matter of life and death.

The end users in the military are the young men and women taking care of and operating airplanes (not their Xboxes and PlayStations). And if they “don’t know” what the requirements should be, there’s good reason to, most notably the time issue. These young men and women might be taking care of a new jet plane on the carrier deck, but that plane’s development got underway anywhere from 5 to 20 years earlier (that’s right, before some of them were even born).

In this case, it’s the engineers and scientists who are “in the know” and who must be masters of the art of the possible.

But it’s not that simple, either.

I referenced Xboxes and PlayStations because they have become all but ubiquitous in today’s households. Certainly many of the 18- to 21-year-olds going into combat have logged a substantial amount of time on game systems — or games played on computers and smartphones — so there’s no argument that the way people have learned to interact with this type of technology is a real consideration.

If you consider the F-18 family of aircraft, the cockpits are now essentially computer screens, a long way from all the little analog dials of old. Instead, you see touch screens and visual information not so different from what you’d find on a gaming system. And it would be hard not to draw a comparison between the control of drones and the video-game realm.

So while the military’s “customers” might have been too young to supply meaningful requirements at the time a system’s development got underway, the requirements of the end user do in fact come very much into play, and there has to be some kind of a push-pull development process here.

What I propose is that we’re not best served by falling completely behind one approach (traditional market research) or the other (the art of the possible). We need to recognize that there are merits to both, and that there is an innovation loop that’s fueled by both innovators and customers.

I believe that the middle ground here, surprisingly enough, can at least in part be found in the world of popular entertainment, where innovators and customers alike tap into a collective imagination.

Science Fiction and Technology

Anyone who saw Iron Man 3 got an eyeful of tech. While a reality, things like exoskeletons for strength enhancement are not yet in everyday use. You can, however, look to Google Glass as a prime example of wearable tech, and who knows how far we are from brainwave-technology interfaces. You better believe the research is underway.

Martin Cooper, the “father of the cell phone,” claims he was inspired to develop mobile phones by seeing Captain Kirk speak into his handheld communicator. When you think of other entertainment that seemed to predict new technologies, Dick Tracy’s wristwatch phone springs to mind, and you might recall David Hasselhoff talking to his car in Knight Rider. In fact, today’s mobility and nearly ubiquitous communication can be seen in any number of old shows and movies — well before such technology had come anywhere close to use in real life.

The Jetsons hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago, but just look at how much of that “science fiction” technology is in use today: flat screens and portable media devices most particularly.

My contention is that the “fictions” we read or see on the big screen play a role in helping us to capture, in a more understandable way, what customer requirements are before they’re actually put out in the field. Movies, books, science fiction, TV and comic books serve as a place where we’re able to experience and imagine what these capabilities might be — well in advance of any insight that could be gleaned from traditional market research.

Entertainment provides fertile ground for thinking about and imagining how new tech would work, even on the unconscious level. It’s hard to believe that The Jetsons and other shows haven’t lingered in the mind’s eye of those who’ve helped to deliver all of today’s innovations.

The important idea here isn’t so much whether a technology was drawn from fiction or vice versa, but that there is a recognizable back and forth, and that over the years there’s been a strong link between entertainment and innovation.

I maintain that there is real relevance to the idea that fictional constructs let us think about, envision, and experience how new technologies will and will not work. Most specifically, I think that entertainment can provide three things:

  1. Fiction helps end users ask questions about the impact and consequences of technology (as played out in any number of post-apocalyptic scenarios).
  2. By placing technology within a recognizable narrative, fiction makes it easier to conceptualize something that might otherwise be too complex.
  3. Fiction enables market research by “prepping” users on possible technologies. By giving these technologies a context, users are thus enabled to “see around the corner.”

Real-World Consequences

The costs of aircraft and other military systems are rising, and the need for shorter development times is increasing, but the complexity of the technology is growing as well, and the stakes are getting higher and higher.

Warfighters’ needs have to be satisfied, in many ways at least, by the art of the possible. But in this high-risk environment, it’s also important to realize how requirements have been affected by the collective imagination — which itself is shaped by popular entertainment.

Understanding this can help speed technological innovation and provide a platform for new ideas so that, in the end, organizations can identify and fulfill customer requirements — whether those requirements are for a new weapons systems or the latest gadget for interacting with friends and family.

image credit: Kurt Knudsen

Scott Williams is CEO and Founder, Maga Design Visual Information Mapping…

Scott’s LinkedIn profile here

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  1. Sarah Miller Caldicott on August 10, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Scott…I think it’s increasingly important that execs have exposure to science fiction via focused thinking and writing. Few people regard themselves as ‘creative,’ but when they see fantastical concepts played out in movies, it gives them motivation to try their hand at disruptive thinking. As you note, the innovation process can be dramatically enhanced by incorporating science fiction-esque concepts along the way.

    Thomas Edison was an avid science fiction fan. He wrote scifi stories, and used these as a prompt to bring his mind out of logic mode and into creation mode. The impact of Edison’s science fiction work was particularly impactful – ironically – on his development of the world’s first movies, and the first motion picture camera. Delighted that your piece is part of Luis Solis’s new book! -S.

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