Getting the voice of the customer to better create products and services

"Products and services that don't solve peoples' problems, or don't solve them in a competitive cost, fail," writes Abbie Griffin in her chapter Obtaining Customer Needs for Product Development [pdf] in the book: The PDMA Handbook of New Product Development.

To build these products or services, organizations must understand exactly what people need and make a product to match those needs, Griffin writes. There's a second way: give people something they didn't know they needed; create a new technology that solves problems people may or may not know they have. "Although teams can be successful this way, it is a far riskier path to success." 

The real goal is learning how to talk to customers, asking their needs and adapt your products or services to meet those needs. This is far easier than it sounds. First, Griffin says, many firms speak only generally to their customers. So they come back with only general needs. "The key is to talk to customers using appropriate methods and asking questions customer can answer and that can provide information useful for developing new patterns," she writes. 

Another important lesson: Only ask customers to provide information they can, in fact, provide. A whole list exists of things customers cannot help you with: 

1. They can't tell you what exactly you should develop. Features, looks, etc. should not come from customers, but from your team. 
2. Customers also cannot provide reliable information on what they have not experienced or do not know firsthand. If they aren't ebook users, don't ask them to weigh in on a new reader.

On the other hand: 

Customers can provide reliable information about the things with which they are familiar and knowledgeable or that they directly have experienced. A customer can provide the subset of the needs information that is relevant to them in an overall category of customer problems. They can articulate the problems and needs they have. They can indicate the problems and features they currently use to meet their needs, where these products fall short of solving their problems, and where they excel. The only way that a full set of customer needs for a product area can be obtained is by coming to understand the detailed needs of a number of customers, each of whom contributes a piece of the needs information.

The bottom line: Understand customer problems and how these problems impact how they perform their job or live their lives. 

This means asking customers very in-depth questions about how they obtain or acquire and use products and services to fulfill these particular needs. Ask them why they use something that way. Get as much of the context as you can. You need to ask patrons why they did something, what worked well and what did not work well. 

"Please tell me about the last time you searched for a book to borrow." 

All you need to know about successful product development, collaboration and knowledge management was written in 1987

A fascinating 1987 study (pdf) illustrates how the design firm IDEO carries out its product development. Here's the big takeaways, per authors Andrew Hargadon and Robert I. Sutton:  

The firm exploits its network position to gain knowledge of existing technological solutions in some industries that may be potentially valuable in others, but are rare or unknown. It acts as a technology broker by introducing these solutions to industries where they are not known, and, in the process, creates new products that are original combinations of existing knowledge from disparate industries. The organization's link to many industries provide its designers with access to a broader range of technological solutions than they would see working in a single industry. Designers acquire and store such solutions in the organizations memory. Then, by making analogies between new design problems and old solutions they have seen before, they retrieve such knowledge to generate new solutions to design problems in other industries.

Here are my takeaways (some of which overlap with the authors): 

  1. The firm positions itself amongst multiple industries and bridges knowledge and technology gaps to tie these fields together, not matter how unconnected they seem. 
  2. Designers learn the industry they are working with through reading trade journals and interviews, creating an understanding of industry jargon, products and the clients' competitors. 
  3. Designers themselves work in a variety of fields, allowing them to cross-pollinate ideas of what worked in one field (say, vacuum cleaners) to a different field (computer peripherals). They call this building analogies: The secret to building a new hinge for a computer monitor may be found in the small hinge on a children's toy. 
  4. Recreating past designs does not build better products. Using past ideas in new ways helps bring better products.  
  5. Because the company stores so much of its past knowledge and information, it is pertinent to create effective methods to retrieve this information. 
  6. Some written records of past projects exist, but much of the information is stored by individuals' memory. Thus, company culture calls for open collaboration, with designers expected to ask for help or seek advice when they don't know something. On the other hand, designers who offer advice and help are generally rewarded more (social capital is tied to salary structure).  
  7. Some designers become "known" for their expertise and find themselves answering questions about details in the field.