Fostering Consumer Performance in Idea Generation: Customizing the Task Structure based on Consumer Knowledge

To tap consumers' best ideas, customize an idea generation platform to fit their level of knowledge.
June 26, 2013 | Research Brief
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The Idea

To tap consumers' best ideas, customize an idea generation platform to fit their level of knowledge.

The Research

Most firms, when tapping consumers for new product ideas, take a one size fits all approach and use the same platform with all consumers. But not all consumers are naturally creative and few have much experience with idea generation. These limitations can water down the value of the ideas they offer up.

Professor Olivier Toubia, working with Lan Luo of the University of Southern California, wanted to develop a way to help firms tease out better ideas from consumers. Research suggests that people who are knowledgeable about an industry tackle problem solving differently than those with less knowledge. High-knowledge consumers typically solve problems better when the problems are subdivided into more focused problems; therefore the researchers predicted that firms should solicit ideas from these consumers by decomposing the problem — describing the broader problem, but then asking consumers to focus on one aspect of that problem, such as ideas for household use, ideas for business use, and so on. On the other hand, low-knowledge individuals typically perform better when provided examples of solutions and then asked to come up with their own. This led the researchers to predict that firms should solicit new ideas from these consumers by offering examples of ideas that others have come up with. The researchers confirmed their predictions in a series of idea generation exercises.

Practical Applications


Columbia CaseWorks

A Lead User Template: Unlocking the Value of PWD

To stay ahead of the market, firms need to tap the experience of people with consumer needs that aren’t being met. In this case, we worked with Pepsi to solicit new ideas from what we call lead users, people faced with extreme situations for whom no commercial solution is available. The mobility and sensory issues that people with disabilities have always faced are those that the baby boomer generation now has, and will increasingly face as they age. So we turned to people with disabilities as lead users who could help us improve the shopping experience of anyone facing mobility or sensory limitations. The lead users we identified (e.g., blind directors, deaf musicians) innovate everyday because they have to adapt to the environment and develop their own solutions to meet their needs.

— Olivier Toubia

You can use this research to generate better quality ideas from consumers and to identify their needs to inform new product and service development. First, design your consumer idea generation platform to segment high-knowledge consumers from low-knowledge consumers in the field. Assign decomposed idea generation exercises to high-knowledge consumers without providing examples; assign low-knowledge consumers with idea generation exercises and provide examples, whether or not you use decomposition.

In their experiments, the researchers measured consumers’ level of knowledge of technology products, then divided them into high- and low-knowledge groups. In the first experiment some participants were merely asked for ideas about how to use QR codes (at a time when the codes were quite new and unfamiliar to many consumers). Other participants were given a few examples of possible ideas. The low-knowledge consumers generated better ideas when they were provided examples. In contrast, high-knowledge consumers did not perform as well.

In a subsequent experiment, the researchers added a decomposed approach, again dividing participants into high- and low-knowledge groups. Half of the participants were asked to come up with QR codes ideas, while the other half were asked to come up with the ideas for using the QR code on paper and then for using the codes online. Some participants in each group were provided with examples; some were not. The researchers found that while all consumers produced better ideas when the problems were decomposed, high-knowledge consumers in particular performed well. Low-knowledge consumers in both groups produced better ideas when they were provided examples.


Olivier Toubia is the Glaubinger Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.

Olivier Toubia

Olivier Toubia is the Glaubinger Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. His research focuses on various aspects of innovation (including idea generation, preference measurement, and the diffusion of innovation), social networks and behavioral economics. He teaches a course on Customer-Centric Innovation and the core marketing course, in the MBA and Executive MBA programs. He received his MS in Operations Research and PhD in...

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