This could be the future of developing new products — for better or for worse.

Material Life

The process of developing a new product is risky and expensive for a corporate conglomerate. It's as much art as science, built on relentless customer research, an eye toward an eventual marketing campaign, and a splash of imagination.

But now Amazon competitor Alibaba has a plan to disrupt that process using big data. According to a fascinating new Bloomberg story, the Chinese company is using its enormous heap of data about its customers to help brands develop new products. If the project works — and there are signs that it is — it could plot a new course for how products enter the market.

Spicy Candy

Alibaba recently provided prominent customer Mars Inc. with a vast repository of data about Chinese consumers. Mars used that data to develop a spicy Snickers bar, seasoned with Sichuan peppercorn. According to Bloomberg, Mars typically takes years to fine-tune a new product — but using the Alibaba data, it developed the new Snickers in less than one.

Digging through a giant pile of customer data in search of a hidden, surefire niche sounds like it could stamp creativity out of product development. But for the time being, big data is unlikely to lead to the next truly revolutionary idea.

"No one told Steve Jobs they need an iPhone," retail and consumer goods expert Pedro Yip told Bloomberg of the Alibaba program. "Consumers can only tell you their problems and needs, but you still need creativity."

READ MORE: Alibaba Used Shoppers' Data to Invent a Spicy Snickers Bar [Bloomberg]

More on online retail: The World’s Largest Retailer Is Partnering with Google in an Effort to Beat Amazon

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