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Discovering “Unk-Unks”

For innovators and entrepreneurs, discovering unknown unknowns — or “unk-unks” as they are sometimes called in engineering circles — can be crucial when evaluating a new venture or product idea. The long interview format, a technique used in social science research, is a very good tool for helping innovators identify such unk-unks — the things they don’t know, they don’t know. Although entrepreneurs often do market research by designing surveys that they distribute electronically, that approach can be problematic because in the early stages of exploring a venture entrepreneurs may be asking questions about the wrong product, the wrong pricing model and the wrong potential market segment. Also, innovators enamored of their own idea may ask leading questions while doing market research or focus on their idea more than on customer needs. The long interview format avoids these pitfalls. It features open-ended questions and short prompts that encourage respondents to elaborate.

Silverglade Surgical Technologies based in Boulder, had limited success selling a nonstick surgical probe that could be used for cauterization during surgical procedures. It turned out that surgeons were not accustomed to using a probe to cauterize blood vessels during surgery — but when Silverglade began making nonstick electrosurgical forceps, it experienced success. Illustrating with that and similar case examples, the authors show how companies can employ an open-ended, long-interview technique to unearth such important knowledge prior to product launch.

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