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Succeeding in Universal Design Without Taking Unnecessary Risks


Learn how to ask the right questions the right way

Universal design is a hot topic lately. With baby boomers continuing to retire and age, plus increasing sensitivity to the variety of homeowners’ situations, abilities and preferences, homes designed with flexibility and adaptability in mind are increasingly in demand. And smart builders are tuning into this trend and exploring ways to lead out in providing solutions.

But universal design is likely to involve more than adding options for materials, rooms and facades. This is going to require a broad rethinking of how homes are designed, laid out, built, sold, financed, maintained and serviced.

There are hundreds of possible ways to innovate in universal design. Some of them will be winners with customers, and some will be absolute duds.

RELATED: Universal Design: A Personal Perspective

So how do you figure out which is which, quickly, inexpensively, and confidently? By asking the right questions, of the right people and in the right way. That’s how.

Using Jobs-to-be-Done innovation theory, backed by quantitative data, you can eliminate the guesswork and reduce the risk, time, and cost of developing commercially successful universal design.

Asking the Wrong Questions

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Some think the lesson in Ford’s quote is “Don’t ask customers what they want.” They would be wrong. The point of this truism is that if you really want to create breakthrough innovations, what and how you ask matters. (Yes, dumb questions DO exist, just like dumb ideas.)

If you simply ask potential homebuyers what they want in a home design, they’ll almost always respond like the buggy-riders in Ford’s day: With ambiguous, subjective, unhelpful commentary.

“Make it more comfortable. Smaller. Bigger. Safer. More durable. Greener. More flexible. More secure. Easier to maintain. Smarter. Healthier. Cheaper.”

Sound familiar? Trying to innovate on this kind of customer input usually results in either weird, ‘What were they thinking?’ designs or incremental, uninspiring designs that don’t even outsell your local competition, much less land you on the Builder 100.

Unfortunately, this is how most “customer-driven” builders approach innovation and design today. They ask “What do you want?” questions, and predictably get “faster horses” answers. Then they set their architects, engineers and designers to work developing the fastest horse on the market. After tons of time and cost sunk into research and design, they end up frustrated and baffled when homebuyers reject the game-changing, design award-winning, super-speedy horse that they had apparently asked for. Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO).

Most would agree that GIGO is a universal law of process quality. It applies to manufacturing, computing, accounting, cooking, and every other process, including home design. Innovation inputs, in the form of customer needs and opportunities, come from asking questions. But if you ask the wrong questions, of the wrong people, or in the wrong way, you’re going to get garbage design inputs, resulting in garbage design outputs–which is bad for your customers, your company and your career.

The Right Questions

The answer to this challenge is to stop asking unstructured, solutions-based questions (e.g., “What would you like in your home?”) that elicit subjective answers. Great innovators like Ford, Steve Jobs and others focus on objective innovation inputs. Yes, you need to talk to customers. A LOT. But when you do, ask these two questions first and foremost:

  1. What “job” is the homeowner “hiring” for their home to help them get something done?

People don’t generally buy stuff purely to have stuff. According to Jobs-to-be-Done innovation theory, people buy products and services, including homes, to help them get something done. In Ford’s case, this “job” is getting from point A to point B, whether the solution is horse-drawn buggies, automobiles, air travel or roller skates. Focusing on the job, rather than the solution, is what freed Ford’s mind to disrupt the horse and buggy industry with his automobile. It can free your mind to change the world with universal design, as well.

  1. What are the metrics the homeowner uses to evaluate how well a home helps them get the job done?

Every time your homebuyers experience living in a home, they’re measuring, consciously or unconsciously, how effectively that home helps them get their job(s) done. For example, when trying to accomplish the job of providing shelter for my family, it’s important to me to minimize my energy costs. This customer need, and others like it, are how I decide how well a home will help me get this job done—and therefore which home I will buy.

Your homebuyers aren’t designers or architects. They’re not experts in designing homes. You are. What your homebuyers ARE experts in is the job(s) they’re trying to get done and their needs when trying to do those jobs. So ask them about that. You’ll get much more meaningful, actionable answers.

You’ll know before you spend a dime on design which needs are unmet, and as a bonus, the answers you get won’t change by the time you launch your new line of designs, because jobs to be done are persistent. Your odds of market success will skyrocket, and your risk of creating irrelevant homes that don’t resonate with homebuyers will plummet.

Great innovation isn’t easy, but it’s pretty simple. Get the inputs right by asking the right questions, of the right people, in the right way. Making innovation into a science leads to consistently breakthrough innovations. Just like Henry Ford’s.



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