Want to Uncover New Product Opportunities? Try Archaeology


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I recently read this wonderfully provocative piece on how archaeology can be used as a tool for new product research. The crux of the paper is that insights into new product opportunities can be gleaned when we shift the focus off the consumer, and onto the products themselves, as this graphic shows.

While this perspective is fascinating, it’s not entirely new. Certain industries have, for years, been focusing on products in a unique way that others don’t. One of these is the medical device industry.

In this industry, once a product is sold it isn’t forgotten. If, at any time, there is a problem with a product, the Manufacturer is supposed to be notified of the failure. It is then incumbent upon the Manufacturer to look into the failure, and based upon the results of the analysis, undertake corrective and/or preventative actions to ensure the failure doesn’t happen again.

When investigating medical product failures, scant, helpful feedback from clinicians is not uncommon. When asked about the problem, often the response is, “Your product failed.” Specific details of who did what, when, are difficult to tease out. As a result, medical device failures are, in many ways, much like an archaeological dig. The product has to speak for itself…

The package landed on my desk with a thud.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Product complaint from South America.”

I opened the box and therein was the complaint documentation, an xray, and, wrapped in double-sealed plastic bags, a bloody catheter. The catheter, which should have been soft and pliable and about 12 inches long, was in two pieces – one 8 inches, the other, 4. The catheter seemed stiff and, at the break edge, looked like the jagged wood of a snapped, number 2 pencil.

I looked at the complaint documentation and read the doctor’s description: “Performed routine abscess drainage and the catheter malfunctioned.”

That was it.

I held the x-ray up to the light and in the grey was a white curly-q with a jagged edge, the tell-tale image of the 4 inch piece of broken catheter, before the clinician fished it out of the patient.

Something wasn’t right here. The jagged edge; the fact that a soft catheter was rigid; that it broke, instead of softening in the body. I forwarded the product to a materials scientist. Something had caused a radical change in properties; hopefully he could provide some insights.

His report did shed some light on the failure. The plastic was degraded – seriously degraded. Such breakdown of the material only occurs when it’s exposed to certain chemicals, high heat, radiation, or a combination of these.

I found some product in the warehouse from the same lot as the failed product. It was soft, supple and passed tests with flying colors. Whatever caused this product to degrade, happened in South America.

Calls to the doctor went unanswered.

In turn, I took some of the good catheters and performed additional tests. I irradiated batches with Gamma radiation and soaked them, and others, in various cleaning and sterilizing solutions.

Catheters exposed to certain combinations of stressors transformed in ways that were eerily similar to the South American catheter. That was it!! This broken catheter was somehow exposed to high doses of radiation and most likely some cleaning solution.

And, add to these findings, the ‘legends’.

In many countries, in an effort to save money, products that were sold as “single-use” products in the USA, were used, cleaned, re-sterilized and re-used on new patients. All the evidence in this case fit with this ‘legend’, and without being able to speak with the clinician, this seemed to be the most likely scenario.

I sent a letter back to the clinician and described our findings. I reiterated that these catheters were intended to be ‘single-use’ products, disposed of after removal from the body. We received no more correspondence from the clinician. The case of the broken catheter was closed…

I share this story because it highlights how when forced to focus on the product, we learn things and uncover opportunities that we may not have found had we interviewed consumers. Sure, if we asked this doctor, he may have said, “We want a cheaper product.” Who wouldn’t? But, few doctors would admit to reusing something that instructions, and some would say, “common sense”, dictates otherwise.

What product opportunities were discovered?

In this case, this wasn’t a failure in the design of the product per se, but a failure that occurred as a result of a cost-cutting measure. This case highlighted that in some South American countries (and other markets), there were opportunities for catheters that were lower cost and/or reusable. To meet this requirement we would’ve been forced to find and/or develop a material that could withstand an aggressive re-cleaning process while staying soft and biologically inert. We could also have looked into alternate business models for reducing cost, or improving accessibility to products. The company made a decision to not do any of this. But the point is, they could have, and these all had the potential to be innovative solutions.

This archaeological approach can be used in other industries as well.

Today when eating dinner, one of the meals at our table wasn’t the greatest. It wasn’t bad enough to send back, or even complain about, but it wasn’t a perfect meal either. The fish wasn’t as firm as it could’ve been and the mashed potatoes were a giant serving that few people could finish. So, what if, instead of the wait staff collecting and scraping off dishes, the chef examined multiple plates to look for what consistently didn’t get eaten, or even which utensils seemed to get used the most?

She would see that the fish, or the potatoes, were repeatedly unfinished, or the breading was often scraped off into neat piles on the rim of the plate. These could all be hints that something was amiss with the dish: the fish wasn’t being cooked properly (or in a way that people liked), or servings were too large, or the breading was too, “something…” This information could then be the starting point for developing new dishes or new approaches to serving.

There’s something to be said for taking a consumer centric approach to uncover new product opportunities. But,there is also value in playing the archaeologist, grabbing a figurative (or actual) shovel and doing some digging, uncovering opportunities that might otherwise be buried and unspoken.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Michael Plishka
Michael Plishka is the President and Founder of ZenStorming Solutions, LLC an innovation design consultancy. He believes in co-design methodologies, sharing design thinking essentials - empowering people and companies to make a difference with their products and services.


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