Innovate by spotting and applying trends

Have you ever read an article about design trends and wondered, “Where on earth did THAT come from?”

A trend, stripped of its history and context, isn’t particularly meaningful. It’s merely a reflection of the now. Effective trend watchers find glimpses of the future and use them to design meaningful products and experiences. Unlike clothing, food and other easily altered consumables, it often takes several years to design and manufacture a hard good. If you’re designing to capitalize on what is trendy now, you’re designing something that’s potentially dated by the time it reaches the market.

So how do you get that glimpse into the near future? It starts by knowing the different types of trends and how to spot, analyze and use them effectively.

All trends are not alike

If you’re interested in watching trends, it’s advisable to watch these three types:

Macro: These are the “big picture” trends that help place a particular consumer or industry trend into context. Looking at macro trends as social, technological, economic, environmental and/or political (STEEP approach) is a good way to start categorizing what you see. There are many consulting firms who do annual listings of macro trends and share them online. Downloading a megatrend framework from trendwatching.com can help you start organizing your findings.

Consumer: People often confuse consumer trends with fashion or fads, but that’s far too simplistic an approach. To quote trendwatching.com, “trends emerge when external change unlocks new ways to serve age-old human needs and desires.” Consider Uber as an example. At a macro trend level, our society is increasingly urbanized and younger generations are less likely to own a car. In addition, the rapidly growing “gig economy” creates a pool of independent contractors available by demand. Through the proliferation of smart phones, Uber is able to serve the age-old need for transportation through the use of contractors. Uber may not exist in 50 years, but the need to provide convenient transportation and flexible employment will be.

Industry: Industry trends are important, but remember that they are directly impacted by macro and consumer trends. Focusing on what everyone else in your industry is doing, without looking more broadly, may help you keep up with the pack but it won’t bring the insights necessary to innovate

Become a trend watcher

Anyone willing to spend the time to observe, read and explore can become a trend watcher. Interested in building your knowledge? Here are some tips:

  • Look cross-industry: Your customers are exposed to many products and experiences. If you see a trend manifested across several industries, try it on for size in your own industry and see how it fits.
  • Establish a trend trajectory: Trends are a natural progression, which means looking back can help you see forward. Through online searches, you can follow a trend through its evolution and make an educated guess about where it’s going. Understanding the trend trajectory can be fodder for developing disruptive products and services.
  • Check your bias: Try to remove your taste from the consideration set. Ask lots of questions and search for answers in places beyond your personal comfort zone. Look at what younger generations are doing, wearing and writing about. Check out technology magazines.

  • Don’t dismiss ideas/products too quickly: When tablets first came out, many people ridiculed them as useless. Or how about putting a camera in a phone? Nobody will want that! Often, we’re telling clients, “It looks crazy now, but trust us it will be everywhere in a year.”
  • Try products out: You can learn a lot by getting different products in your hands. Reading about a Misfit and wearing one are very different experiences. Physical interaction brings an understanding that secondary research can’t replicate.
  • Look for the anti-trend: If everyone is wearing black, someone will wear white. Eventually, people want something new and opposites attract. Marble and gold, once considered dated, are back in fashion. Is this because consumers are tired of granite and stainless? Playing with textures, sheen and finish can give something unfashionable a fresh twist. Because it hasn’t been seen in so long, updated “old” can feel new.
  • Be aware of the world: The economy, events like the World Cup, and social movements can influence trends. Next year, the bright colors of Rio’s Carnivale are likely to pop up in lots of places as they host the Summer Olympics.

  • Layer trends: Mixing and matching different trends you have identified can lead to some interesting concepts.

Getting started

Time is your biggest investment. Schedule time to get lost on the Internet. Dig deep into a trend and follow where it leads you. Here are some great tools:

  • Google Trends: Want to know when wearables exploded into the mainstream consciousness? Just type wearables into a Google Trend search and track interest over time, key news stories, regional interest and popular related searches. It’s free and easy to use.
  • Amazon: Look at reviews. What are consumers writing about? What are common likes and dislikes? What are the product features that receive the best reviews?
  • Forums: Product and topic forums can provide deeper insight on consumer opinion.
  • Pinterest: You can search for just about anything and see what people are collecting and sharing. Start your own boards.
  • Instagram: A very in-the-moment place to watch trends. It’s a great way to follow the tastes and activities of a lot of people.

Devoting physical space to trend watching is also useful. For example, you could create a pin-up space where you collect photos, physical samples and words about colors and finishes. Put it up and start making connections. Mind maps and visual storytelling can help you analyze your discoveries. Don’t be afraid to discuss your findings with other co-workers – they may have a completely different take on a trend that can lead to new insights.

Applying business strategy to trend watching

Product development can take years, which means chasing a trend for trend’s sake may be a fool’s errand. A simple expression of a trend that arrives four years late is a business move that’s DOA. But a deep, analytical understanding of the environment that shaped the trend is imperative to successful new products and services, which is why incorporating trend watching into your innovation process is crucial.

Most companies that are good at innovation follow a disciplined process that includes at least three phases: ideation, evaluation and implementation. Trend watching has a seat at the table during all three.

In the ideation phase, the task is to generate lots of ideas. Looking at trends is a place to start. The power is in dissecting the trend to hone in on the drivers behind it. For example, take Crocs, the foam-molded slip-on shoes that were so hot a few years ago. You can look at the obvious attributes of Crocs — colorful, comfortable with a novel, affordable material. Then you can go deeper — they are reminiscent of historical working class shoes, they are gender neutral, the ventilation holes are symmetrical and resemble some well-known architecture.

These are not quite insights — because you can’t be positive of why Crocs took off — but they are hypotheses. From here you can focus your ideation efforts on similarly grounded innovations for your company’s product or service. Working with a set of imaginary constraints can actually be a catalyst for creativity during this phase.

Evaluation is all about determining which ideas are viable. This includes not only the business feasibility but also asking a key question: Is this idea grounded in plausible consumer insights (derived from trends)? Answering this requires corroborating evidence, which can come from a number of objective and subjective sources including industry data and articles in the popular media. Trend watching can also serve as validation.

During the implementation phase, the product or service is launched into the world. Trend watching is useful here as well because by the time your innovation has moved through the creation process, time has passed and new trends have come to the fore. This presents two opportunities. One, there is the opportunity to revisit the initial hypotheses about the plausible consumer insights. Are they still believable? Has the initial trend picked up steam or morphed in some way? Is so, is there anything that can be tweaked on the new product or service to dovetail with the current trend before it reaches the market? This might be something like launching a version of your product in a new on-trend color.

Second, is there anything in the commercialization plan that can be modified to capitalize on the trend as it exists during the implementation timeframe? This means looking at things like advertising vehicles and publicity opportunities, distribution methods, retailers, retail geographies, potential spokespeople, product partners and even price, to name a few.

Trend watching is about peeking into the future and understanding why certain things are capturing people’s attention. Innovation is trend watching applied. A business leader needs to know the trends as well as the consumer needs that underlie them to create something exciting and of enduring value.

Read the full article by industrial designer Vladlena Belazerova and business strategist Marlisa Kopenski, originally published in the November 2015 issue of Appliance Design.

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