What A Community Workshop Taught Me About Product Development

Last summer, I along with several colleagues conducted a community “walk shop” in the City of Mountain View. A “walk shop” is a one-day event that brings together community members, city officials, architects, engineers and urban planners for a slow and considerate walk along (in this case) California Street. We walked alongside the participants encouraging them to point out any problems they faced in their daily use of the sidewalk, street or other public right-of-way facilities and write it on a plan of the neighborhood. At the end of the day we reconvened, transferred these issues to a wall-mounted board and presented them to the group.

Mountain View California Escuela Shoreline Project - Walk Shop Presentation Board

As this was the densest residential corridor in Mountain View, we were sensitive to the needs of the elderly, children and automobile-less residents. Some long-time residents pointed to the narrow sidewalks they were forced to share with bicyclists afraid to ride alongside speeding vehicles. Others pointed to drivers that rolled through too-wide intersections, rendering it hazardous to cross.

A select few, presented solutions to the problems. For example, one intersection near an elementary school saw repeated speeding and a disregard for pedestrians crossing at an unmarked intersection (i.e. there was no crosswalk painted on the ground), including during our ‘walk-shop’ which led to harsh words and aggressive honking. One solution was to  implement a speed table, while another was to build bulb-outs at the intersections making pedestrians more visible. While a speed table may be warranted at this intersection, one problem was that drivers from neighboring communities used this street as a cut-through to evade rush hour traffic.

Anthony Ulwick’s article Turn Customer Input Into Innovation recommends that in product development, instead of asking your customers an open-ended question like what they want, it’s best to find out what they want a new product or service to do for them because they only know what they’ve already experienced. It is up to us to use the answers they provide to innovate. The best way to approach this is to conduct an in-person interview, ideally in the users space; and this is what the “walk-shop” was meant to accomplish. I arrived prepared with a set of questions (going from broad to specific):

What kinds of things do you do for fun here in your neighborhood?
How often do you do that?

Who do you usually do that with?
How do you get there? What route do you usually take?
What is that experience like?
Are there any points along that bike/walk that make you feel uncomfortable? What about it?
Can you describe a time for me when something made you feel uncomfortable [crossing this intersection]?

or, if it’s school related, I’ll ask a parent:

Can you walk me through your morning drop-off routine withe your children?

As you can see from the questions listed above, I started broad and then moved on to specific questions related to the goals for the “walk shop”. If done well, participants won’t even realize the interview has started and instead feels like natural small talk and a stroll.

Ulwick advises that “customers not be trusted to come up with solutions; [because] they aren’t expert or informed enough for that part of the innovation process”. That doesn’t mean that they won’t insist on providing you with one -- or several.