How to uncover real consumer insights (that get past the obvious)

A headshot of Steve Denning

by Steve Denning

Yellow cartoon diamond overlaid on a green background.

An engaged community is always ready for collaborating on ideas, co-creation and innovation. But it's up to your brand to match that eagerness with a plan of action that moves beyond basic surveys and polls.

When you use a well-designed multi-channel activity ecosystem—including thoughtfully designed quizzes, contests, storytelling, thought experiments and creative challenges—you and your customers are able to capture better ideas and more discerning opinions, and are more likely to unearth important insights.

“If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Henry Ford

But (and it’s a big but): people are not always the best judge of what they really think or feel. We all know the self-professed “introvert” who is always the last person to leave a party, or the “funny” friend who is the least hilarious person you’ve ever met.

Because people often don’t have sufficient insight to tell you their real needs, drives and fears, projective techniques can come in handy. They’re called “projective” techniques because they encourage people to project their opinions onto animals, objects or other people. (The Rorschach inkblot test is probably the most famous of them.) The idea is that, once the self is taken out of the equation, researchers can get at deep truths and beliefs.

We’re now entering that slightly magical place where insights lurk.

Here are a few creativity and innovation techniques that you an use to coax insights into view:

  • Structured Association (e.g., analogy and metaphor, story-driven narrative, fill-in-the-blanks, sentence completion, semantic intuition): produce positive and skeptical remarks as well as rational and emotional thoughts.
Cartoon images of fast food dance in a moving line.
  • Confrontation (e.g., random word storytelling, photo association, projective scenario prompting): use objects seemingly unrelated to the problem as stimuli for creative idea development.
Cartoon gems being connected by moving line.
  • Configuration (e.g., attribute listing and recombination, matching, content creation templates): combine elements in a new way; can also be addition/subtraction.
Cartoon abacus with light and dark brown moving pieces.

By imposing creative constraints, you help shape ideas and solutions and stoke creativity by setting firm boundaries around creative inquiries. For instance, instead of asking your community to, say, identify ten features they want from your new product, have them think of the one feature in greatest need of improvement and explain why. Ask them to imagine using the product only during a rainstorm, or what would change if the product were to be used strictly by children under the age of six. Guaranteed: you’re going to hear things you never thought you were going to hear. Tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the “big picture” and make connections between things that are not obviously connected.

Here are a few examples of creative constraints that you could use to help shape ideas and solutions to problems:

  • Time frame: How could you scale a process to take only 8 hours?
  • Materials: Your product can be made only of materials you might find in a forest
  • Cost: Your idea or product can cost no more than $50
  • Creative element: Use photos from National Geographic to tell your story
  • Space: Describe your idea in ten words
  • Context: Write this idea as a newspaper headline
  • Feature reduction: The product or idea can have only one feature

There are, of course, many other tools in our toolkit that can help you discover what people are really thinking, what really motivates them, what they really want. The point is that using such oblique techniques—approaching the challenge from previously untested or even unthought-of directions—can elicit a much richer and more complex creative response than people may have suspected themselves capable.

Getting down to business: the creative challenge

We’ve found that the very best way to tap into participants’ appetite for creativity, innovation, and friendly competition with brands they care about is through creative challenges. This approach moves far beyond a traditional idea management tool, breaking a big problem into small, fun segments.

These multi-step gamified activity bundles represent a true creativity and innovation process, not just a one-off activity. Typically, creative challenges last 8-12 weeks (depending on the culture/pace of your community)—because creativity, invention and innovation don’t arrive in a flash (or a “lightbulb moment”). They’re the product of time, reflection, and variety of perspectives.

Six Creative Challenge Styles/Activity Bundles

Creative challenges can strengthen communities and provide brands with a rich source of information, innovation and inspiration across a wide spectrum of scenarios. Take a look.

  • New concept/product development: Encourage creative prototyping by increasing empathy for the situation/problem. Works best with lead user group (employees or customers) or for simple products.
  • Product improvement: Build collective understanding and detailed product feature insights before generating ideas for improved experience.
  • Process/experience improvement: Ideal for expert user communities. This approach leverages metaphor activities to facilitate work with less concrete concepts
  • Implementation strategy: Harness expert user communities to help scale and implement “bright spot” pockets of existing innovation. The focus becomes less about solving problems and more about copying success.
  • Launch/marketing content: Generate content and ideas from participants with this light program.
  • Brand engagement: Engage participants in the life of your brand—positioning, creative, competition and evolution—by tapping their creative insight.

At Chaordix, we treat the creative challenge process as if we were publishing a magazine: a new issue comes out at a regular cadence, with a new theme, a new cover story, new content. This approach helps ensure that participants remain engaged and look forward to participating, and it also works at a problem in a variety of ways, so that people are encouraged to use many different ways of thinking.

It also helps us play to the different strengths of our communities—some people will shine brilliantly at one task, while some will be better at others. Creative challenges are simply the best way to maximize the enthusiasm and harness the talent of a brand community.

As human behaviorist research tells us, to arrive at great ideas, you first need to get people to do two things: to critically evaluate what they currently know and to explore other possibilities. We achieve this in part through the Structured Association/Confrontation/Configuration techniques we just discussed. Then we warm the community to the task at hand by iterating around a problem statement with a creative constraint (as discussed above). Once the creative pump is primed, we’re ready to jump right in to the creative challenge.

From Empathy to Insight to Solution Ideas: The Creative Challenge

Inspired by globally-recognized creativity and innovation workflows (including Creative Problem Solving (CPS), LEGO® Serious Play, and IDEO® Design Thinking), the popular contests and challenges at the heart of the Chaordix co-creation methodology help us frame problems, organize creative activities, and generate ideas and insights. Here’s a brief rundown of how creative challenges roll out.

Phase 1: Clarify

The first step is to build empathy—understanding the motivation, thoughts, and physical realities of the people whose problem you’re trying to solve—and, by making community members familiar with the problem or challenge at hand, to begin drawing out insights.

Phase 2: Create

Insights are further drawn out and ultimately a key insight becomes translated into a “how might we?” statement to be used as the core question in the creative challenge.

Phase 3: Iterate

Members refine, clarify and expand their ideas for possible solutions. Then ideas are vetted by an expert panel for their strategic potential and finalists are chosen; the community votes on a winning idea/concept/submission. The winning idea(s) will have the greatest potential for actually being implemented.

Phase 4: Implement

Participants offer suggestions about how to advance the idea or what it would take to make it successful.

Phase 5: Reflect

Talk with participants about what they liked most about their community experience, and what they learned. Celebrate the end of the creative challenge with the whole community. There is opportunity here for a private forward-looking survey, where participants are given a final opportunity to provide constructive feedback, ideas for greater engagement and future challenges.

This website is not optimized for Internet Explorer.

For the best experience, please use a newer browser such as Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.