Frugal Innovation: Understanding What People Really Need 1


Innovators were often driven by a passion to fulfill the needs others, especially those who are poor and disadvantaged. If you look at the examples of frugal innovation, the products and services that emerged from this approach are essential, even life-changing to the customers.

PeopleReallyNeedUnderstanding needs in simple terms is a great starting point for frugal innovation, but sifting through problems as people actually face them and focusing on which aspects are important isn’t easy. An innovator hunting for needs or interpreting situations from the wrong perspective can be led astray. And even asking people what they need can be problematic. Here are a few ideas on the challenges an innovator faces:

  • Needs can be (but should not be) confused with things. No one needs a smart phone. They need the ability to communicate with others, to get the latest news, to engage their minds (games) or senses (music), to express themselves creatively (photography), to make choices based on the best information available (weather, stock prices, traffic), and more, but, for almost all needs, alternatives to a specific device or service exist.
  • People don’t always know what might satisfy their needs. The perfect example of this is when we aren’t feeling well, we see a doctor who takes down medical history, explores, and questions, and uses his or her knowledge to prescribe a solution.
  • The satisfaction of our needs occurs within a larger context. For the Donner party, trapped in icy mountains, the need for food was satisfied by cannibalism. Their choice was successful (for some), but it not acceptable for those who can satisfy the same need with a trip to the grocery store.
  • The satisfaction of needs occurs within competitive environments. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The cost fluctuates with supply and demand, of course, but this is complicated by other key factors, such as knowledge.
  • Every option has a cost, and people will pay in different ways, depending both upon their wealth and their values.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it helps to highlight some of the complications. For an outsider from the developed world, perspective can make this even more difficult. Very often, the need appears as something a customer is lacking. “If only this village had access to a hospital, many lives would be saved.” That illustrates a big problem (public health) and a big solution (a modern hospital).

  • Break it down (but not too far).  The perfect unit for a need is based on the resources available and the ability of the innovation team to contribute meaningfully.
  • Listen. Whether they are sales people in a large organization or tribal elders, people who have needs have key information and their own ideas about how the problem may be solved.
  • Learn about the culture and context. Any innovation is an exercise in change management, so hierarchies, power, rivalries, taboos, and values all play a role. In addition, solutions work within climate, environment, politics, histories, and economics.
  • Recognize the role of change. Many a good idea becomes obsolete before it comes into practice.
  • Recognize the role of knowledge. The success of an innovation is dependent on who people know, who knows it, and when they know it.

In my next post, I’ll work through these with an example, and see if there is a practical approach to exploring needs.

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