A Better Way To Do Ideas and Innovation In An Online Community

After speaking to a dozen or so product managers over the past two years, it’s fairly clear community ideation isn’t close to achieving its potential.

At worst, ideation areas of a community become a dumping ground for the same complaints any customer support rep could easily name. Sometimes they’re the last resort when a customer complains about a problem an organization can’t fix (“hey, why not suggest it as an idea and maybe an engineer will see it?”).

Ideas suffer from three common problems.

1) The ideas are bad. Members often suggest ideas which are unfeasible (inconsiderate of constraints), unique to their situation (i.e. no broader business benefit), or simply outside of the company’s strategy. Often ideas just haven’t been fully thought through or fully formed.

2) It’s hard to respond to ideas. If you get a lot of ideas, it’s not always feasible to respond to every idea. Which ideas do you respond to? The best? The most recent? Those with the most support? Those from top members/best customers? Idea areas often become a ghost town of formerly popular ideas.

3) The ideas aren’t executed. Ideas are just one signal product managers have to determine what to work on next. Ideas come from customer support staff, focus groups, long-term corporate strategy, the CEO, and plenty of other channels. No product manager is going to focus solely on executing customer ideas (and their job might be boring if they did).

To do ideation better we need to help members create better ideas, effectively respond to ideas, and develop a system to execute ideas.

 

Getting Members To Submit Better Ideas

Idea submission is usually pretty terrible, here’s an example:

When ideas are cheap to submit, you can expect to get a lot of cheap ideas.

We need to add friction at this stage. Force members to do some more legwork to submit an idea (otherwise it’s just a customer service complaint). It’s better to imagine themselves pitching the idea rather than submitting the idea (think Dragon’s Den, but without the silliness).

Revamp your idea form to include separate options for:

1) The problem they’re trying to solve. What is the specific problem they need to resolve? Provide an example and include some helpful tips to members to define the problem.

2) The business outcome of solving the problem. What will be the business impact if they solve the problem? Provide examples and in-form nudges.

3) Clearly describe the solution. How it works, any relevant examples, and why this solution has been chosen.

4) List other use cases for the solution. Does it only apply to the member or could it be useful to others? Can it solve other problems too?

5) Highlight the popularity of the idea. Is there any research, comments, posts, or information which suggests this idea could apply to others.

6) Promote your idea. Once members have submitted an idea they should need to promote and lobby others to support the idea. This provides a reasonable standard to judge the popularity of the idea.

You will get far fewer ideas, but the ideas you do get will contain far more useful signals for product managers.

You might find the solution isn’t as valuable as members clearly defining the problem and business impact of solving the problem.

 

Responding Effectively to Ideas

If you’re not prepared to respond to every idea, don’t have an ideas section.

Of course, if you’re getting 50 ideas a day, it’s going to be hard to respond to every one. So you need help from your colleagues or other community members. This help should fall into three areas.

1) Improving the quality of the idea. This can be provided by other members (or the community team). This is when the idea isn’t complete, has been suggested before, it needs further work before it can move into the ‘need validation/acknowledged’ phase.

2) Progressing the idea to ‘acknowledge/validated’. Once it has achieved this level, the community manager or other staff can put this into the ‘in consideration’ stage. During this process, the member should be encouraged to get others to support the idea, provide any further information, and help others.

3) In consideration. If the idea seems popular, then it should be routed to the relevant product manager for a monthly/quarterly review of ideas. At this stage, they can be added to the roadmap, rejected, or analyzed for elements which are useful to other areas of the business. It is best to have a fixed date for this.

4) Added to the roadmap, partially used, rejected. Don’t let ideas linger forever without ever receiving a response. Every idea should either be approved/tweaked and added to the roadmap, sent back down for further information, partially used, or rejected as impractical/not significant enough to make a big business difference.

 

Develop a Better System For Gathering Ideas

To achieve the above, you probably also need a better system for routing ideas to the right person, understanding and explaining what ideas are needed (and when).

1) Sharing the roadmap. To submit good ideas members need to know what’s on the current product roadmap. Within reason, this should be made public to members in the pitch process. Let members suggest ideas for specific time-zones of the roadmap.

2) Set time-limited feedback or challenges. Unsolicited ideas can be useful, but so can using the ideas section to solicit specific feedback on specific topics at specific times. Likewise, they can set specific challenges with prizes for members who submit the best ideas to tackle a challenge.

3) Previews of upcoming features. Any time an engineer or product manager has a question, they should be able to call for feedback as an idea within the community.

Community idea areas have incredible potential, but in their current form, they rarely deliver a fraction of what they promise. You can change that.

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