Archive for the 'Discovery' Category

Product Camp Boston and “ignorant” customers

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

PRODUCT CAMP
I went to my first Product Camp this month.  It was the second one held in Boston.  These are “unconferences” organized in the barcamp style.  That is a self organizing conference.  Anyone who wants to give a presentation puts a short description up on a board.  Everyone has a few colored dots to place on these proposals to vote their preferences.  The number of votes a presentation gets determines what room it’ll be held in and to some extent when it is scheduled.  Then everyone attends the presentations of their choice except when they are giving one.  There were a couple of invited presentations that all attended and then about 5 rooms running simultaneously.  There were 140-180 attendees.

MY SESSION
I proposed a session titled “Ferreting out Customer Needs.”  It was more popular than I expected.  I anticipated leading a discussion with a dozen people around a table like the first session I attended.  Instead I found myself giving a podium presentation in the biggest room with 2 screens before about 70 people.  Good thing I decided to type my notes into Powerpoint instead of Word at the last minute.  Risk management, you know?

IGNORANT CUSTOMERS
Still, I did go through the room asking everyone why they attended and what they hoped to learn.  My focus was on the importance of understanding your customers’ needs and how to do that.  Yet three people wanted help making their customers understand they don’t need features they were demanding.  I think all three were from software companies.

My bias is to assume in a case like this YOU are the one not listening to your customer.  I diplomatically hinted at that but did not provide the definitive and fair answer they deserved.  I might be right but it occurred to me later that one of the tools that I talked about could be used to address this question.

MY ANSWER – MAP FEATURES TO NEEDS
The concept is simple.  Customers have needs.  They buy products (and services) that offer certain benefits to meet those needs.  Features provide the product’s benefits.  Engineers design features.  Someone has to do a mapping between the customer needs and product features.  (Often that will be the product manager.)   This is how you insure the engineers are working on the right features.

Not doing so means you spend a lot of time and money on features the customer won’t value (i.e. pay for) because they don’t meet any need.  Moreover, you risk completely missing customer needs leaving an opening for the competition.  After all, the single largest reason for product failure is developing products that don’t meet real customer needs.

This concept is easily pictured.

CUSTOMER has        PRODUCT        ENGINEER designs
____Needs___==>   Benefits   <==___Features____
……..need 1                                         feature 1
……..need 2                                        feature 2
……..   …                                             feature 3
……..                                                  feature 4
……..                                                  feature 5
……..                                                   …

If you can’t map a feature to a need, that’s a sign it shouldn’t be there.  If you have needs not met by any feature, they have to get into the product requirements and you have work to do.  This is a good tool to help you focus on the features you should develop and to put off those you shouldn’t.

What if you think your customer is demanding features they don’t need making you waste time and money?  The first possibility is that you really don’t understand their needs.  You need to revisit your voice of the customer work to see what you missed.  The second possibility is that you are right.

My answer in either case is that you should sit down with your customer with the lists of needs and features and map the connections together.  The customer might put needs on the list that are supported by the features you thought were unnecessary.  Or you might be able to demonstrate to the customer that these features do not connect to any of their real needs.  Be aware that emotional needs may not be obvious yet can be more important than any functional need.  An unused feature may provide a feeling of security for example.  “It’s there just in case I need it.”

This is a good exercise in any case and is likely to lead to surprise learnings for both of you.  The process should also bring you closer to your customer and that can’t be bad.

Can you outsource product management?

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Does that make sense? Alyssa Dyer took on this question in an article I came across while cleaning up. I saved it because I agreed. It depends. It can be a good thing in the right circumstances and with the right division of labor.

NOT TO OUTSOURCE
When you need a partisan. Some things you don’t want handled by an outsider — for instance, representing your company at conferences or in sales situations.

BETTER OUTSOURCED
When you need a mercenary. There are tasks that an outsider may do better. Alyssa cites gathering requirements and prioritizing them. I would sharpen that to include the front-end market research like voice of the customer (VOC) activities.

The key is that you need to hire someone experienced. They will likely be more skilled at asking the necessary “why” questions and they are less likely to hold the biases about your customers that pervade your organization and industry.

WHO TO OUTSOURCE TO
She cautions against hiring a telemarketing company because they are typically about asking “what” questions. I would expand this to include many of the traditional market research companies that might hold focus groups and ask “what” people want, “what” they prefer. Gerald Zaltman tears the market research community a new one in the first part of his book about “how customers think” for exactly this reason. Also, because those kind of methods influence the answers you get. They are right for refining your solution but wrong when defining the product and requirements.

Experience also helps you know when you’ve gotten enough information. I recommend Abbie Griffin’s paper listed on our Resources page for more about when your sample is enough.

WE WILL DO
Obviously it’s an interesting topic to me since clients outsource key product development and product management services to Breakthrough NPD. The things we excel at and do that are on her list include:
# Customer research
# Gathering requirements
# Prioritizing requirements
# Competitive analysis
# Positioning and message validation
# Website review and alignment
# In-depth quality checks with customers
# Setting up and running a customer feedback council

In fact, anything that is best served by a neutral 3rd party, like calling customers or reporting up to management, is a good candidate for using an external party. Outsiders have less to lose by giving management the facts especially when they aren’t pretty.

WE MIGHT DO
We do some product management functions that are good for outsourcing if we have the right experience but are likely to engage a partner or provide a referral instead. For example,
o Sales tool development and review
o Evaluating and conducting a release debriefing (lessons learned)

NOT FOR US
And there are the product management functions she lists that we generally don’t do but we might be able to make a referral.
— Win/loss reporting (it is good to keep sales dept. bias out)
— Pricing
— Planning and managing product launches

WHEN TO OUTSOURCE
So when is this good for your organization? Bringing in help to take on some of these product management functions makes sense at these times:

1. As a stopgap until you can fill the job internally or with a new hire. (Keeping the product moving, cutting down schedule risk, keeping work from piling up).

2. Helping deal with the backlog of PM tasks that built up while searching for your new PM.

3. Bringing in experience to raise the level of your internal PMs.

4.Breaking outside the box created by internal biases. (To make big innovation steps.)

IN A TIGHT ECONOMY
With the economy tightening I think a lot of companies will cut back on new development. Outsiders can help with specific tasks or projects to help you survive with a smaller staff during a lean period. They can also help you manage risks. That’s more important when you have less margin of safety. Furthermore, smart companies know that the lean time is a good time to prepare new products because by the time they are ready the economy will have turned around and you’ll have something new to capitalize on the upswing while your competitors get left behind.

References:
“Is it possible to outsource your product management?” Alyssa Dwyer, Mass High Tech, Feb. 9-15, 2007, p12.

The Voice of the Customer, Abbie Griffin and John Hauser
(scroll to the end of list)

How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltman

Trends You Need to Know

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

The June 2008 PMI Network magazine lists 5 business trends we all need to know about … or else. Future survival gets my attention. The thing that stood out to me was how important the ability to understand needs will be for all 5 trends. To me that means increasing value for the kind of “voice of the customer” skills we practice going beyond customer research. Let’s take a look.

TREND 1: THE BATTLE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE
A technical skill shortage is developing across all regions and markets. Even the low cost talent pools in India and China are drying up. Looking forward that means companies need to get better at two things:
— recruiting top talent
— managing talent internally

Well, if you want to attract good people, you need to understand what makes them tick, what they need and want. Then to keep them you also need to understand and meet their needs. So VOC skills are an advantage coping with this trend.

TREND 2: THE RISE OF EMERGING MARKETS
Emerging markets are the part of globalization that is breaking growth records. Most companies don’t do a good job of understanding their domestic customer as it is. Then they hope to develop products for, and sell to, a different culture? Good voice of the customer work is even more important and more tricky in this context.

For example, Breakthrough NPD supports foreign clients but with a catch. Unlike the U.S. & Canadian markets where we will do everything if requested, we only do certain parts of VOC work overseas. We train our foreign clients in VOC methods and we will coach them, even being in the room as they conduct customer interviews. The key difference is that a native familiar with the language and culture must conduct or lead the customer interactions. They must ask the questions and interpret the answers. Keeping bias out of the process is hard enough and would be much harder with the filter of outsider bias in the way as well. We can provide a neutral and unique perspective that ads value to the interpretation but should not be driving the work.

TREND 3: INTERACTIVE INNOVATION
This boils down to using Web 2.0 tools to incorporate customer needs into your business at every level. That is, from core business strategies and project goals to testing new product concepts and getting feedback on your existing products and services. Examples are having your own internet forums, blogs, social networks, on-line communities, customer advisory boards and so on to better understand customer needs. This essentially means expanding what we do now to define new products and their requirements to also help guide the business and improve operations.

TREND 4: REALISTIC RESPONSIBILITY
This is taking responsibility for the impact of company actions on communities, stakeholders and society. Social responsibility is going from a “nice to have” PR stunt to standard operating procedure for good business reasons. This involves a wide range of things from labor practices, living wages, health and safety, civic infrastructure, environment, etc. I’ll admit that the link from VOC skills to this trend is weaker but they still will give you clearer vision of your impact on everyone else.

TREND 5: THE HERE AND NOW
Globalization has pushed companies into 24/7 schedules and operations. With this comes the push for quicker returns on investments. Obviously this is about running faster. Less apparent, it is about being more clear on what you need to achieve. You can do more with less if your goals are clearly defined. That means continuously tracking the needs and goals of the end user, establishing methods that allow your teams to react to changing business needs, and prioritizing what can or should be done in view of the larger context. The best way is to involve customers, stakeholders, and advisors throughout your projects. Again, skills to acquire input and understand your customers will be invaluable.

A medical device case study in the article illustrates that this goes beyond getting the specs right. I think this quote from the company involved makes that case well, “customers jumped at the chance to participate once they saw we cared about their needs.”

Let me emphasize the “we cared about their needs.” The bottom line folks is that it is all eventually about the people. It is about the individuals whose lives are benefited or burdened by your offering.

Do you believe these trends are real and will affect your business? If so, you should also see that getting better at understanding the voice of the customer, (broadly defined), will be important to benefiting from rather than being buried by these trends.

For more on the trends:
“Pay Attention,” Sarah Fister Gale, PMI Network, June 2008 ps 35-41.

Hey, why not let everyone help develop your products?

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Another way companies are breaking down the barriers between themselves and their customers or other folks outside is via “crowdsourcing.” That is a way to get people on the outside to provide value to the organization on their own time. It is essentially the open source model applied to more than just software.

STRIKING GOLD
The best example I know is the Goldcorp story. Their president put all their proprietary geologic data for a mine on the web and held a contest. The winners with the best ideas of where to drill would share half a million dollars. The diversity and originality of ideas they received was far beyond anything they anticipated. Years later they were still drilling sites suggested by contestants. They were mining so much gold they were the only gold mining company that was stockpiling for better prices in the future. Furthermore, their stock price went up thirty fold. (See Taylor’s book referenced below.)

ADVANTAGES
The internet and the decentralization of expertise has enabled crowd sourcing and it is typically used to develop solutions. That is at the back end of the product development process. Companies can gain key advantages via crowd sourcing.

LEVERAGE —
achieving goals not possible with a limited fixed staff

This is the advantage of scale. For example, large companies experience many more customer demands for new products than they can keep up with. Some have formed external networks to act in an advisory role or even do project work directly (as in the Goldcorp example) to develop more new products. NASA has used volunteers to process enormous amounts of data making images available months earlier and freeing up researchers to concentrate on higher end work. Google essentially uses crowdsourcing in the way it ranks pages for its search engine.

ORIGINALITY —
access to a larger number and far more diverse range of ideas than possible in-house

I think William Taylor says it best in this chapter title from his book Mavericks at Work: Ideas Unlimited: Why Nobody is as Smart as Everybody.

Inviting people from other boxes to work on your problem is a pretty easy way to get real “out of the box” thinking.

CROWDSOURCING AT THE FRONT END
I see parallels to the kind of work we do at the front end to understand the problems you should be working on in the first place. You can use crowdsourcing methods to find out what the most important problems are for you to solve, as well as to craft solutions. That is, from voice of the customer to voice of the collaborator. We have actually done both here.

For more,
“On the Edge,” by Tim Gilchrist, PMI Network, May 2007, p32.
Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre, Harper Collins, 2006. (See Chapter 4.)