Listen Up: Why Innovators Need to Listen to Consumers

May 23, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

Beth Toner Beth Toner, communications officer

I recently spent the day at the MIT AgeLab, and it was an important reminder of why successful innovators in any field need to listen to the consumer.

I was there to participate in a roundtable discussion on engaging the “older” consumer online (much to my chagrin, I realized that I am in fact part of this demographic). Folks from a variety of for-profit organizations were at the table, along with MIT AgeLab staff conducting and supporting research in this area. I was the only person there from a philanthropic organization.

The presenter line-up was eclectic. To my delight, Sally Okun from Pioneer grantee PatientsLikeMe was there to share her perspective on how PatientsLikeMe helps patients make complex decisions about their health. Courtney Ratkowiak from Proctor & Gamble highlighted that company’s innovative efforts to reach women ages 55 and older who buy beauty products. (I was surprised to learn that most women 55+ don’t own a smart phone.) Mark Duffey, CEO of Everest Funeral Planning, showed how his company makes difficult decision-making easier by going out of his way to make prices clear. (Apparently, the three things women dread purchasing the most are financial services, cars and health care.)

It was inspiring to hear how these companies are truly listening to consumers—reading online reviews, for example, and responding to conversations on social media, even when those conversations are critical. They understand that staying competitive means truly understanding what your target audience wants and needs.
It got me thinking: What if more health and health care providers were truly consumer-focused?

What if more providers focused on creating an open, transparent, two-way flow of information with those they serve?

The true innovators in health and health care understand that we can’t just tell patients what they need—we have to listen to what they need, and then find the best way possible to meet those needs. This is a critical component of Pioneer’s work—being open to new ways of looking at the real problems in health care in this country, even if it means challenging long-held assumptions...especially if it means challenging those assumptions. If we aren’t listening to people on the front lines of the health care system, patients included, and really understanding what they tell us about how the system is broken, then we can’t develop meaningful new approaches.

As Lucky Gunasekara, cofounder of 35 tribes and a member of the Pioneer Advisory Group, puts it, “Great products in health care arise out of listening to patients describe their moments of deep personal pain, as well as profound joy—paying attention to what motivates and moves each of them, and committing yourself to building something that will alleviate their pain and maximize their happiness." He points out that, incidentally, such a philosophy will “help you discover markets and breakthroughs faster and cheaper than just sinking capital into building a product around a bright idea and running around afterwards for problems to solve and customers to whom to sell.”

I’m energized by the ways in which grantees like PatientsLikeMe, OpenNotes and Project HealthDesign are promoting open, transparent health care. The Pioneer team looks forward to hearing from more innovators who realize the revolutionary power of truly listening to those you seek to serve.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.