Imagine if we had limited opportunities to preserve food. Most of the meat, vegetables and fruits would rot after a couple of days, and we would need to visit the grocery store on a daily basis. Keep in mind that, without any convenient way to preserve food during transportations, the food supply would be limited to the local production. In other words, salmon would most likely only be eaten by Canadians and Norwegians.
It's difficult to envision what everyday life would be like without a refrigerator. However, if we had the chance to go back four generations, it would perhaps be even harder to explain which impact the fridge has had on our society. The people who lived a couple of centuries ago were probably satisfied with the cool cellars and preserving methods such as salting, smoking or drying. They didn't care about that meals were dependent on the seasons and determined by the local supply, only because they had no other choice.
History has proved that it's not until someone identifies a customer problem and come up with a new solution, as past behaviour appear bizarre. That is how humans have replaced smoke signals with smartphones and horses with cars which in turn will soon be replaced by self-driving cars.
Evolution by solving customer needs
Let's assume that most citizens of the pre-electronic era were pleased with cool cellars as a place to store food. However, there were some obvious disadvantages of storing food underground, like fluctuations in temperature, unwanted pests and hygiene issues. So when the icebox was introduced in the mid-19th century, it was a groundbreaking innovation. It had the look of a cabinet and could be placed inside the house which made it much more convenient compared to the cold cellar (which used to be placed in the garden). Ice ran the cooling system and when it melted, new ice was delivered by the ice producer.
For the first time, people could store food inside the kitchen. It seemed like a sustainable solution. At least, as long as the ice was delivered on a regular basis.
In 1922, the first self-contained refrigerator was introduced. As we can understand from the ad, it was a revolutionary innovation that genuinely solved the customer problems:
"Frigidaire, the complete home refrigerator, cool itself. It requires no ice. It removes the uncertainty of an outside ice supply. It puts a stop to the dirt and mud that the ice man brings into your immaculate kitchen.
Frigidaire maintains an atmosphere in the food component at least 10 degrees colder than is possible with ice.
It freezes ice cubes for table use. It enables you to serve dainty frozen creams, ice and desserts...."
Start focus on relevant customer problems
The reason why I'm bringing up the evolution of refrigerators is that I was recently in the process of remodelling my kitchen. To find the right fridge, I started researching on the internet. However, soon I realised that I had a hard time choosing which refrigerator to buy. To me, most of the models looked the same. Some had a built-in ice machine, and others had a small display on the door, but apart from that, they all seemed to have more or less the same core functionality. That's when I started to doubt that the manufacturers had defined a contemporary customer problem.
Unlike previous generations, I did not look for a solution that removed the uncertainty of an outside ice supply. Neither did I look for a solution that maintains an atmosphere in the food component at least 10 degrees colder than is possible with ice. Simply, because those problems do not exist anymore. Nevertheless, it seems like today's producers are trying to solve the same problem that Frigidaire did in 1922 – a place to store food.
But due to today's large supply of refrigerators, very few people in the western world are having trouble storing food. That dilemma was solved a couple of years after 1922. Therefore, to develop strong competitive advantages, today's refrigerator manufacturers need to define a new issue to solve. They need to find a contemporary headache and present a solution that will make our interaction with today's refrigerators look bizarre.
Dear refrigerator manufacturer, please solve my problem!
Just like the first models in 1922, today's refrigerators require us to carefully plan our food purchases. We need to manually make a list to track and replenish inventory. After that, we need to make the actual purchases in the grocery store.
Meanwhile, we are running out of time. Today, time is one of our most important resource and therefore, it is a shame that so much of it goes to planning food purchases when we already have the technology to let the refrigerator order the food.
Time is a contemporary problem that needs to be solved by all companies who have the opportunity to help us get more out of our everyday life, i.e. I want a refrigerator supplier that can make our families live more effective. Imagine a fridge with the same computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning algorithms that culminate in the "just walk out technology". All your devices would be connected. Who cares if groceries are a tad more expensive when the shopping experience is this frictionless?
Are you solving a contemporary customer problem?
Perhaps the supplier wouldn’t make the refrigerators. Perhaps the supplier would just take the stance of being a natural part of our family. Packaging "just eat technology" that includes the automatic reordering experience. The options are staggering when you stop thinking of the refrigerator as a mere icebox and start treating it like a smart hub.
Now, it's time for companies in various industries to start reflecting on what actual customer needs they are trying to solve. I firmly believe that too many are following old patterns and offer a solution to an outdated need. A need that was solved several years ago.
To be able to define new issues, you need to create a business idea and a way of working built upon how it is to be human today.
What customer need are you solving?