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How Customer Driven Innovation is Transforming Product Development

Posted on January 19, 2016 by Chris Ries

For Reem Gamil, design goes far beyond the aesthetics or user interfaces associated with products. To her, design is a way of thinking that focuses on what people want and need, and then crafts those experiences into products that are meaningful and relevant for customers. Gamil, Director of Experience Design at Vertafore, is on a mission to incorporate design thinking into the company’s DNA. 

“Design isn’t just about fonts and colors, though they certainly can be one facet. Great design helps make products and services more aesthetically pleasing, more compelling to use, and more relevant in a world that seems to change at an ever-increasing pace,” Gamil says. 

Vertafore has begun to adopt a customer-centric mindset as a way to build more delightful, engaging products like the Vertafore Agency Platform. This has resulted in stronger cross-functional collaboration within teams, and has also enabled us to co-create solutions with our customers like never before. While the design-thinking framework has led to increased product innovations, the journey to extend design processes into Vertafore more holistically will take time. But Gamil says it’s a natural fit for the solution-oriented company. 

“As a company, Vertafore is always looking to solve real-world customer problems,” says Gamil. “The value of design is that it allows us to think differently about how and where we add value for our customers.”

The design framework used by our product team applies to services as well. Truly effective customer outcomes and experiences require a multidisciplinary approach that includes a deep understanding of end-to-end customer need. 

Customer driven

Reem Gamil, Director of Experience Design at Vertafore

Design thinking is about understanding and empathizing with customers—by asking, observing, and interpreting their pain—then developing solutions using a human-centered approach to deliver positive, useful experiences as well as physical outcomes. That’s the real power of design thinking.

Our product teams constantly ask whether they are making an impact on the lives of our customers. Effective design is the difference between a complex, frustrating interaction and a smooth, intuitive interaction; it creates an experience that feels as delightful as it does functional. According to Gamil, you absolutely need both to deliver any kind of value.

"Good design may not be something users even notice on a conscious level,” Gamil says. “But when executed correctly, it can enrich their lives immediately. If we’ve only focused on making something look great visually but haven’t solved the customer’s problem, it degrades the quality of the solution and makes the user work harder. So we go back to the drawing board. Customers will let you know, both good and bad.”

A multidisciplinary approach 

Collaboration is an essential ingredient for engaging design in the development process, and the Vertafore Agency Platform is a key example of that.

Designers, product managers, and engineers all bring unique and differing points of view, which makes for more effective problem solving. Gamil says, “It’s not just an engineer or a designer or a product manager solving the problem independently, it’s all three working together.” 

“Regardless of their area of expertise, each team member is asking themselves the same questions,” Gamil continues. “Why? Why are we choosing this problem to solve first? How will solving this actually ease the customer’s pain? What do we want our customers to feel?”

Empathy building

How people feel when they use Vertafore products is critically important, which is why product teams go to great lengths to develop deep customer empathy. Learning and understanding the motivations and needs that drive people’s emotions is essential to creating the right solution. 

In design, it’s important to understand the people you are designing for. The problems you’re trying to solve are rarely your own. And in order to design for others, you must build empathy for who they are and what is important to them.

Observing what customers do and how they interact with their environment gives us clues about what they think and feel. It helps us understand and learn what they need. It also lets us capture the physical manifestations of their experiences, what they say and do. This has allowed us to interpret the intangible meaning of those experiences in order to uncover insights, which have then led us to the creation of innovative solutions. 

Empathy building is a key element of design thinking. “We spend a lot of time trying to understand our customers’ needs and behaviors,” Gamil explains. “More often than not we’re asking questions like, ‘How do customers actually use our products? Is that use different from the pain point they’re describing? Are they happy when they use our products? Why? How does that differ by the user’s role?’”

Defining the problem

Once our teams have identified the emotions and driving behaviors of the customer, we move on to drawing some conclusions based on the insights and information gained through customer observation. 

Defining the problem is key. It helps us evaluate competing solutions and identify what we’re solving and not solving for. Staying focused allows our teams to work on a specific problem in a targeted, purposeful way instead of trying to create a one-size-fits-all solution.

Ideating on solutions

Now that we have a grasp on a specific problem, we move on to generating as many radical design alternatives as possible. During this phase, our team has the freedom to explore a diversity of ideas and look at options that are both obvious and not so obvious.

Innovative solutions take shape during this phase, when we bring together cross-disciplinary teams and —most importantly—incorporate customer ideas into the mix. Consulting and co-creating with our customers has been hugely successful for us. It has allowed our customers to influence and improve the products they use each and every day. It’s a very rewarding experience for all of us.

Rapid prototyping and testing

Once a solution has been formulated, the team will immediately test it with customers, whether it’s a sketch or a whiteboard drawing or a clickable prototype. 

“What we learn from those interactions with customers helps drive deeper customer empathy as well as shape more successful products,” Gamil says. “It informs the next iteration of the prototype. Sometimes it means we go back to the drawing board. That’s what makes this process both interesting and powerful.”

Gamil believes that championing customer-driven innovation embodies the forward-looking ideals of Vertafore. By encouraging richer customer interactions and gathering insights while co-creating alongside our users, we are developing products that transform the way the modern agency does business. 

Learn more about how a customer-designed insurance agency management system can help grow your business in the Agency Management System Buyer’s Guide, available free here.

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