About a year ago, I wrote about the paramount importance of customer-centricity and customer experience in the digital economy. I focused on the idea that there is the direct correlation between listening to customers and achieving better business outcomes. This time, I want to focus on the relationship between digital innovation and fulfilling real customer needs.

Digital Flops
The past few years has seen big flops resulting from innovation becoming divorced from customer needs. Apple Pay is a shining (and scary) example of how even innovation giants can lose sight of their customer needs. There were several red flags on this initiative from the beginning. When is the last time that you cursed at how hard it was to use your credit card at the supermarket? Card payments and other payment systems are simply not a struggle to navigate. Apple dumped huge resources into attempts to add efficiency to an already efficient system which in turn made them unable to overcome resistance from merchants reluctant to invest in new mobile payment systems and hardware. In effect, Apple solved a problem that didn’t really exist. Apple also built a solution that only worked for users of their newest phones at stores that had the latest POS systems. With all of these headwinds is it any wonder that adoption has hovered at around 5% for the last year?

While Apple Pay targeted a very specific (albeit nonexistent) customer need, Apple Watch targeted a wide swath of nonexistent needs. I’ve read many articles about consumers (ranging from the technologically enlightened to the very much not) taking off their Apple Watches for the last time. As Guardian tech writer Alex Hern put it, “...smartwatches are a solution in search of a problem. A technology created, not to serve consumer demand, but to serve the need of device manufacturers to fill the revenue hole created by declining smartphone growth. You don’t need one, and neither do I. It just took me nine months of wearing it to realize.”

Digital Successes
Earlier this month, Chick-Fil-A’s mobile app was the most downloaded free app in the iTunes app store. That’s right, a controversial and fairly small chicken sandwich chain beat out Facebook, Snapchat, and a free (yet addictive) popular game. Fast food is a nearly frictionless space by definition but Chick-Fil-A listened and found a real customer need to fix. According to their press release, “82 percent of millennial parents say they would do almost anything to avoid long lines at fast food restaurants when they are with their children ... nearly half (48 percent) said they would rather not eat at all than stand in a line.” So, what does the Chick-Fil-A app actually do? It allows you to easily pre-order and skip the line. That’s it ... No solutionism, no overly complex engineering, just a customer need successfully addressed with technology thus adding value to a company. Of course, throwing in a free sandwich with your first order was smart marketing that helped spur demand even more.

Tying Digital Innovation to Consumer Needs
I stand firmly by what I wrote a year ago, “Customer-centricity is the cornerstone of digital business.” Every business needs to use digital tools to collect feedback from their customers and use that information to drive innovation towards fulfilling real customer needs. Tying your product development teams to tangible customer needs is the best way to avoid expensive and dangerous useless products. Listen to your customers and profit!