BCG X – Manhattan Beach
There is a quote commonly attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
While nobody knows if Ford actually said this, this quote is often used to dismiss the importance of starting with customer input to inform product innovation.
And Ford was right — kind of. If Ford had asked customers outright what they wanted, they probably would have said faster horses.
But what if Ford had asked a different question? What if he had dug deep into customers’ needs, desires, and pain points? He likely would have found that long travel times, low reliability, and limited carry capacity were the real problems customers wanted solved.
Today the appetite for corporate innovation is as strong as ever. But one of the biggest mistakes we see innovators making is chasing imaginary customer demand — resulting in a lot of expensive work and little customer uptake.
By placing desirability at the center of innovation, companies can uncover and truly solve customer pain points. In this article, we’ll share the process we use at BCG X to help our clients achieve product-market fit and ensure innovation success by prioritizing desirability.
Four Lenses for Validation
At BCG X, we use four lenses to validate early-stage concepts and identify successful innovation opportunities:
We always start with working out what people want, or the desirability stage of this discovery process. After all, if you’ve got something your customers want, you can almost always solve the other issues of viability, feasibility, and strategic fit.
But all four stages are critically important — and your level of investment should be directly proportional to your confidence in each.
Here’s what our proven innovation process looks like, step by step:
1. Desirability: Does it matter?
The first question to ask is: Is there demand for a new, better solution? The answer lies in uncovering your customers’ problems and how you can solve them. At this stage, it’s essential to:
Let’s consider an example where an athletic shoe manufacturer wants to create a new product for runners. To understand what problems runners face and assess desirability, its corporate innovators may join a running club where they can run alongside runners, learning more about their challenges and how running fits into their lives. Perhaps by doing this, they learn that many runners want to connect their running to key health vitality metrics like blood oxygenation.
2. Viability: Will it grow?
Once you know you can solve a problem for your customers, the next step is to determine whether you can create a viable product or service that will grow over time. You need to:
Once the shoe manufacturer identifies the running problem to be solved (connecting running to key health metrics) and has an idea of how to solve it, it needs to determine if runners will pay for it. For example, would runners pay $5 a month for a new app, could the app generate revenue from ads, or would a free app lead people to buy more running shoes from the business?
3. Feasibility: Will it work?
This stage asks whether this solution will work and can be successfully developed. You’ll want to:
The shoe manufacturer in our example needs to ensure its solution is feasible to make. Nanobots that go into runners' lungs and tell them how much oxygen they have would probably solve the need — but it’s technically impossible to build. Instead, the manufacturer may find an app that leverages sensor data from the Apple Watch runners already wear is a feasible option that is also desirable and viable.
4. Strategic fit: Can we win?
Lastly, it’s time to consider whether the business can drive value and impact at scale with everything else in place. To do this, innovators should:
The athletic shoe manufacturer needs to determine whether it makes sense for them to build the solution — in this case, an app that monitors oxygen levels. To achieve strategic fit, the shoe manufacturer must ensure the app aligns with the company’s brand positioning, existing product portfolio, and strategic vision for the future.
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
There can be a tendency for corporate innovators to overemphasize the viability and feasibility components of the innovation sweet spot — without giving desirability the attention it deserves.
But focusing on solutioning and defining the “how” before you’ve defined the problem ignores the Voice of the Customer. This leads to products and solutions that don’t solve real customer problems — or fail to solve them in a way that customers will adopt.
Subscription-based models are a prime example. These have exploded in popularity, but are they always a good choice? No. This model will never work if the purchasing cadence doesn’t work for your customers.
Innovators must avoid the temptation to fall into the “shiny object” trap — where they chase a model that doesn’t suit their business or customers.
Businesses create unnecessary risk when corporate innovators ignore desirability or consider it an afterthought. From wasting resources to missing genuine opportunities to add value — or even negatively impacting your brand reputation — ignoring desirability can be costly.
Why Starting With Desirability Matters
By placing desirability front and center, businesses can broaden the aperture of what they can solve and how. Sometimes, what you think your customers want is very different from what they actually need.
Here’s a real-world example to illustrate this point: At BCG X, we were working to develop a digital wallet and bill pay product for small businesses. However, delving into their bill-paying habits revealed they had a major concern about rising energy costs. Through further exploration, we discovered that our client could offer these businesses low-cost renewable power via a new government initiative.
In this instance, we successfully solved a problem we didn’t initially know was out there — proving that innovation thrives when we dig deeper and examine the entirety of customers’ needs.
Three Ways to Test Desirability
When it comes to testing for desirability, there are a range of techniques for corporate innovators to explore. We recommend using a blend of ethnographic research, quantitative analysis, and market viability testing.
This isn’t just about understanding what or how someone does something — it's about understanding why. Other types of research might focus on conclusive data used to inform strategy, but ethnographic research surfaces the kinds of latent, unmet needs critical for shaping new products and services.
During this research stage, don’t just ask questions — put yourself in other people’s shoes. That involves spending time to get at the deep underpinnings of your customers’ attitudes, behaviors, and aspirations.
When ethnographic research is done well, the results can be delivered through tools that synthesize and evoke decision-making. Some of the outcomes of this research include findings briefs, personas, customer journeys, and systems diagrams.
Consider quantitative surveys as complementary to your ethnographic research. While ethnographic research gets at the deep underpinnings, quantitative surveys collect the numerical data you need to back up those underpinnings.
The goal is to survey a large enough sample size to achieve the statistical significance needed to arrive at conclusive results. Quantitative research should use pre-defined categories, with hypotheses tested through direct, structured questioning. Quantitative analysis provides the statistics needed for a high-level view of trends in the customer landscape.
Market viability testing
Market viability testing involves assessing the competitive landscape, business case, growth strategy, and go-to-market approach. From teaser websites to ads and pre-orders, there are various techniques to help uncover whether you have a viable product. Pre-orders are one of the strongest indicators you can get: If people are willing to pay for your product before it even exists, you know you’re onto something.
Desirability Is the Heart of Innovation
Once you’ve found something desirable — there’s your reason for moving forward. Then — and only then — should you consider different business and delivery models, alongside the optimal tech stack designed to reduce technical debt.
You may find that the right solution isn't an app, but a feature on your existing website. Even if it’s not what you initially expected, you now have the confidence to iterate with viability and feasibility, refining your concept and pivoting to optimize decision-making. Doing so lets you zone in on the must-have solution to your customers’ problems.
Corporate innovation success lies in first uncovering what customers genuinely want and need. Remember, the challenge was never to build a faster horse. By embracing the mantra of “starting with desirability,” you can carve a path that leads to transformative solutions that drive genuine, lasting impact.