5 Organisations that Design Solutions with Customers, for Customers


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A new product, process, service or experience improvement should always start and finish with the intended end user or customer in mind, shouldn’t it? Why is it that we still see market launches that are developed by extremely clever people in product planning, product management, engineering, UX, or even design, that don’t stand the test of time? In many cases these improvements have been focused on a ‘feature’ that is believed to be the next great thing. Sadly, often they have never been near a customer before they are launched; the innovation and development has been completed without so much of a mention of the customer.

A customer need is not a solution, product feature or idea

Back in 1982, when someone on the Apple teams suggesting conducting some market research, Steve Jobs replied: “Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I (Steve Jobs) think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” 15 years later, in 1997, Jobs also famously said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the Technology. You can’t start with the technology and then try to figure out how to sell it.”

The two quotes may seem contradictory, but I don’t think so. Most customers cannot articulate what they may need next week, let alone a year in the future. But you can explore what it is they are trying to achieve and therefore extract some of their unmet needs, and design around these.

Naturally, the clever people who are designing the solutions will need to work on a ‘feature’ or a solution, but we have to enable these people to work on the right features and solutions, with the right customer insight-led recommendations, or better still by involving these people in the customer and their story from the outset.

I agree with Jobs in that you need to figure out how to respond to customers in a way that best leverages your strengths, your technology, and your expertise, but it has to be rooted in and aligned to, what we and others, call a customer ‘outcome’.

Innovation and design can deliver for the customer and for the organisation

According to McKinsey, the best design performers increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts.

Despite this, according to PWC’s Innovation Benchmark (2017), only “54% of companies say customer engagement strategy helps define innovation from early ideation and 35% of companies say customers are their most important innovation partners.” 

Better innovation & design should be intentional and collaborative

If improvement and innovation is going to have an impact for both customers and the business, then it should encompass 3 circular steps:

  1. Discovering customer unmet needs & outcomes
  2. Designing solutions, collaboratively with all stakeholders in mind
  3. Listening and learning, continuously

1. Discovering customer unmet needs & outcomes

Organisations should begin by better understanding the nature of the problem to be solved and the value a solution could bring to ensure customer’s happiness.

Customers buy products and services to get a “job” done and to achieve their own objective or outcome. When we are helping clients address a particular customer problem or issue, we adopt this ‘job to be done’ thinking. The problem in itself provides the catalyst and the context for solution design, but the focus is on delivering the customer outcome in the best way possible (that gets around the challenge or issue). We reframe the client’s challenge as an opportunity; the opportunity focusing on not only better understanding customer needs but also on achieving this customer ‘outcome’.

Tony Ulwick introduced ‘Outcome-Driven Innovation®’ (ODI) back in 1991 as an innovation process with a success rate 5-times the industry average. His theory is that to create a product or service that customers will want; companies must first understand what performance measures customers use to measure success when getting the job done – these performance metrics are the customers’ desired ‘outcomes’.

We help clients engage (yes through what might be termed research) with, talk to and learn from customers, users, prospects alike both face to face and via online communities, to ensure that their design developments and innovation will get to the crux of the customer outcome.

2. Designing solutions, collaboratively with all stakeholders in mind

Innovation, design, or any change cannot be done in isolation. The process needs to ensure participation from a wide range of stakeholders from cross-functional departments, third parties, and partners, and customers/ end users themselves who all have valuable insights to share.

This group of people need to be given ownership and shared responsibility for unlocking the customer problem (or solving the outcome in a way that gets around current issues). This is often termed “co-creation.” Not only is this more likely to ensure success but it’s a great way to begin to engage, educate and embed into the business, what it’s really like to be a customer, so that there is more day to day customer oriented practice.

One popular activity with our clients is ‘Recycling Days’ which is, in essence, a design sprint. This is an iterative learning activity with client teams and customers. We begin with the customer outcome and the customer problem e.g., the pain point. We then alternate between consumer groups/interviews and multi-functional, cross stakeholder team sessions to build and re-engineer ideas as we go. This 1-2 day ‘hothousing’ gets us to the point of solutions development where we can ‘test’ with customers and within the business in a relatively short period of time. Another activity is the ‘Consumer Clinic’ where we bring a ’panel’ of carefully selected consumers in front of senior cross-functional stakeholders and facilitate a discussion about a defined challenge.

Outcomes design thinking can lead to new product ideas, ways to overcome delivery chain problems, or even technical solutions to complex manufacturing questions.

4. Listening and learning, continuously

We always encourage clients to adopt a process or way of working that includes continuous customer listening. This doesn’t have to be an expensive or onerous thing. Once there is an insight eco-system and process in place, continuous listening can feed into innovation and design so that design becomes, not only customer-led, but proactive in nature rather than a knee-jerk reaction when an issue arises. A great way to do this is by engaging in a customer community and talking, listening, observing, and sharing ideas and directional thinking with your best (and maybe worst) fans.

5 examples of organisations who are designing with customers, for customers

All Birds

I have to admit to being a fan of All Birds. The company believes that the feedback loop between its business and its customers is critical so that the product improvements it makes will resonate with its customers. For example, it has made over 35 changes to the most well-known, original Wool Runner since it was first launched back in 2016. The company claims that almost all of these design changes were based on the concerns and experiences of its customers (not ideas that have come from within).


This is a well-known example but one that involves ‘open’ input from customers. In 2008, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz launched the open innovation platform “My Starbucks Idea”. It encouraged customers and fans to share their ideas and suggestions for making products better.

Schultz said at the time, “We need to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers. That is my new battle cry. Live and breathe Starbucks the way our customers do.”

The original “My Starbucks Idea” platform. Source: Starbucks Melody

Over the first five years of operation, the platform received over 150,000 ideas, and the company put hundreds of them to use. A decade later, the “My Starbucks Idea” platform moved onto Twitter and the Starbucks website.


Known as a maker of power tools, Dewalt has a well-established base of customers interested in its products. In 2015, it established an Insight Community for its customers to contribute product development ideas.

Ward Smith, the Group Product Manager at DeWalt, sees this open design via customers as a point of difference to keep ahead of its competitors. “Competition is fierce. Everyone’s trying to launch more tools, faster. You need a fast and accurate way to be more reactive in the marketplace”.

Now the community now has more than 12,000 users and it’s not just home users but includes 8,000 professional tradespeople, alongside the 4,000 home users. Dewalt also estimates that it has saved around $6 million in product research costs by having its Insight Community.


DHL uses ‘Innovation Centers’ where it brings together employees and customers in a workshop to brainstorm new initiatives. It has run thousands of these co-creation design sessions. One of the ideas purported to have come out of these sessions was the ‘Parcelopter’ — a drone used for deliveries over challenging terrains.

Source: Forbes

DHL’s customer satisfaction scores have risen to over 80%, and it puts some of this improvement down to this initiative.


Luggage brand Away uses Slack as a central hub to engage with customers and evolve product designs faster. Employees collect customer feedback, add it to subject-specific Slack channels, and all employees are invited to collaboratively decide on the next steps.

Using Slack, Away focused on one of its biggest challenges: an airline ban on lithium batteries, which created an issue for Away’s “smart luggage” products that include rechargeable batteries. Through Slack, customers suggested that Away retrofit the carry-on with an ejectable, removable battery. This was picked up by the Away team and raised in their #customer-ideas channel. Away was able to quickly introduce an updated model of its suitcases equipped with exactly that — an ejectable battery pack.

“Slack is our everything process,” said CEO Steph Korey. “It’s our physical product design process; it’s the hub of everything. A traditional company might have many months of user testing and feedback, and we’re able to use the immediacy to get feedback and, within a week or two, get extremely rich insights and data.”

Reframe the role customers play in the business and product/service/experience design.

So, circling back to Steve Jobs: “You’ve got to start with the customer (experience) and work backward to the Technology. You can’t start with the technology and then try to figure out how to sell it.” Aligning your customers’ needs and outcomes with the expertise of your internal design teams and partners, will bring innovation to process, service and product, that has greater impact, for your customers and the organisation alike.

With this approach, not only will you have ‘Smiling Company, Happy Customers’ but it will form the foundation of a successful customer experience transformation.

Amanda Davis

Amanda writes and shares Thought Leadership, drawing on her 15 years of coaching, guiding, mentoring and consulting for clients in various sectors and sizes around the world. She helps establish organisations understand how to connect to customers; find ways to align their expectations with the culture & capability of the organisation. She has a particular focus on customer experience transformation in the digital age, ensuring that technology development starts and finishes with the customer. Amanda has been a regular featured columnist and advisor for Customer Think since 2018.


  1. As an author who writes a management column in a customer service industry, I’m concerned about the apparent implication in this article that all customers are the same. For me, one of the biggest difficulties in providing excellent customer service is meeting the needs of customers with different technology expertise, device preference (phone, tablet, computer), desire for detail, delivery possibilities, and even typing skills. What can be a wonderful experience for one customer can be a horrible one for another. I confess to hating cell phones for their small keyboards and always prefer sellers with websites that I can access with my computer. In a real example, I’d consider online gambling; but all the sites are that I’ve seen advertised require using a phone. I will agree that some customer features are liked or disliked by a high majority of users, but this isn’t always the case. In my industry, vendors normally provide simple and advanced options to match the varying skill levels of customers.

  2. Robert thanks for your comments. I agree with your assertion that the experience should be tailored wherever possible. Taking an outcome based approach depends on the understanding of individual and relevant customer needs and where appropriate responding consistently to these. Naturally, there will be groups or segments of customers with similar needs that can be met with an identical appropriate service or product solution, others may require something different. The article did not intend to assert that “customers” are a homogeneous mass but rather that companies should seek to work with a representative group of customers to create relevant solutions. My article’s focus was always intended to be on the ‘what’ is delivered, I agree with you that ‘how’ it is delivered is hugely important and in your example would require consideration of all relevant delivery channels.


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