Innovation through customer collaboration and feedback

Nordstrom is one of USA’s leading fashion specialty retailers and is a Fortune 500 company (2011 – ranked 254).  When I think of a fashion retail company, innovation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  So how does a large retail company like Nordstrom innovate?  Through the creation of a Lean Startup team, called Innovation Labs.  According to their website,

The Nordstrom Innovation Lab is a new, and growing, team. We act like a startup inside of a large company: we move through ideas quickly, using whichever technologies make sense. We also walk the agile walk: the lab is a collaborative workspace with stickies and note cards everywhere, and we follow agile engineering practices like pairing and test-driven development. On the customer-facing side, we use ideas from both lean manufacturing and lean startup, and test our experiments with customers using human-centered design strategies and tactics.

The below video is a brilliant case study on how the innovation lab uses Lean UX and human centered design to build an iPad application (to help customers select a sunglass) incrementally and getting customer feedback in real-time as they work, so they were never working on anything that wasn’t valued by the customer.  They were only doing things that was delivering value.

The innovation lab manager, JB Brown states:

Somebody will have an idea and we will find a way to prove that the idea will work.

We really don’t know what the features are yet.  We are going to use customer feedback as we go along in order to build the best thing.  Building a feature and testing it until we get to the point where we have something that is good enough.

Building the iPad application isn’t complex and the cycle time to develop a feature wouldn’t take long.  But what the innovation labs team has done is cut down the feedback loop times.  If this application was built in an office away from the customer, getting feedback would have been much longer.  And by getting feedback directly from the end users rather than a user proxy, they have reduced the risk of developing the wrong features.

The innovation lab uses a concept called ‘flash build’, a variation of a flash mob, where a software team shows up at a surprise location to build a minimal viable product application so they can get direct customer feedback in real-time.

It is awesome to see innovation and the use of lean and agile principles and practices in action within a large company.

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