The New York Times on Saturday ran an interesting story about "customer innovation centers," facilities that companies like 3M, Hershey and Pitney Bowes are using to work directly with customers to innovate on new products. While they certainly sound a bit like so much MBA-type posturing, these innovation centers actually seem like they work. The companies show customers their latest research and in-progress products, and, often, the customers come up with novel ways of applying these new ideas to their industries.
Which got me thinking--this would be an interesting approach for a software company, especially one whose products span a wide range of uses (like Apple, Microsoft, or Google). They would invite users out to one of their big research centers, present some of their upcoming products, and elicit feedback on what they're doing right, and in what other ways they could be applying their work. This isn't about usability studies; this is about customer-focused innovation.
It's so easy for software companies to work furiously in their little bubbles without enough contact with and insight on what it is that their customers are really trying to accomplish. I'd like to see some of these companies create customer innovation centers. I think they'd discover some interesting things.