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Product Development: Recognising and Serving Customer Needs

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There’s two main ways of developing new products – designing products to serve an existing known need, and creating products that a customer doesn’t yet know they need. There’s value in both, but if you’re going to create innovative products you’re taking larger risks and ones that might not pay off.

It’s cited so often that it’s almost a cliche, but Clive Sinclair’s launch of the personal transporter the Sinclair C5 in 1985 is an obvious example of a failed attempt at creating an innovative product that customers didn’t ask for, and it turned out didn’t need. For the few readers not familiar with the device, it was a battery powered vehicle that could reach speeds of just 15mph – half way between a recumbent bicycle and a Segway, but with the downsides of both!

Of course designing products that customers don’t realise they need can pay dividends too. How many people were asking for a fully touch screen phone when the iPhone appeared? The difference between the two examples is that Apple paid attention to what customers wanted – the ability to easily type on a phone – but read between the lines of what they said when they asked for a keyboard. They wanted to type easily, and only saw options as either a keyboard or a simple numbers.

This points to the key skill in listening to customer needs – taking what they say not just at face value, but being able to discover and tease our their true wants. This in practice means that a single focus group session won’t cut it. During the product development process you’ll need to go back several times and ask new questions based on ideas and progress within development.

If you’ve already got an existing customer base that is the target market of your new product, you’ve got an inbuilt advantage. Many will be happy to assist you in development for free, getting to enjoy the benefits of the new product before their competitors.

For those aiming at a market segment that is new to their company, things can get tricker. Professional organisations exist that can help you reach these markets and conduct your research for you, having done this many times before. They will be skilled at communicating with you to discover your aims in the product and with potential users to establish their needs and desires.

This can be great for initial research, but taking this in house and putting these customers in front of the development team directly can produce even better results. This is challenging and there is likely going to be a culture shock – many engineers won’t be used to the subtleties of communication needed to take the words of a potential customer and see the real business meaning.

However overcoming these difficulties will be key to creating a rockstar development team that can produce winning products every time. Ingrain into your corporate culture working with customers throughout the development cycle, and you’ll be rewarded handsomely. Segregate your engineering and product development teams from your audience, and any product that does come to market will require extensive modification to meet consumer desires or will fail completely.

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