• Tech products and services fail without advanced feedback from prospective customers
• Engineering-driven product definition does not match customer needs
• Companies often don’t have the time or money to do proper research
• Focus groups and surveys can help test assumptions
• Virtual focus groups can be faster, more accurate, and cost-effective
Every now and then I will pick me head up from my research and coverage of tech gadgets and services to think about some of the larger issues. Today I am thinking about why tech products or services fail, or don’t come close to living up to expectations.
Before we get into it, let’s talk a little bit about the facts of life. No not those facts. The facts I am thinking about are how life works. It is a mix of our structured plans and a healthy dose of randomness—willful design and luck. We can debate about what the split is, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes we lose despite our best plans, and sometimes we win when we don’t expect it.
The same is true with the design of new products. The best you can ever hope to achieve is to maximize your chances of success on the things you can control, while anticipating those whims of fate which may conspire against you. That is not to say that you should not try your darndest to do everything right, because you should. But not everything is in your control.
Ultimately, the final arbiter for whether a product or service is successful is whether it is embraced by your customers, over and above all the other options they have available (including the very strong option to do nothing new and not buy any product in your category). That being the case, why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to learn from your customers in advance? If your customers were a panel of judges for any competition, be it Olympic ice skating, culinary design on “Top Chef”, or singing on “American Idol”, you would want to know in advance their preferences and the history that has shaped them. If Simon thinks singing Country Rock is not a good fit for selecting the finalists, then don’t do it.
The same is true of tech products and services. Unfortunately though, many times this fact of life is overlooked. This is because of a set of different dynamics in the hi-tech product development world. Let me explain.
In the tech world, there is an interesting mix of creative wizardry, hard-nosed business constraints, and smart designers with deep, deep knowledge about how things work. Let’s start on the creative side. It starts with an idea. Whether it comes from an engineer by training or a non-tech person, the idea is the unifying force that drives everything that follows. The idea is usually how to do something incrementally better; something the same but with better marketing, distribution, support or some other non-product factor; or a truly revolutionary new method to do something that was not there before. From the idea, there then emerges a business plan that involves some market analysis and assumptions about what it will take to build, how long, and the likely ramp until the product has achieved its desired market penetration. This is where the funding comes in and when the business people vet the plan for its “doability”, return on investment, and need for resources. Whether the company is a huge player or a start-up, this is the make or break time for the big idea and most new products never make it through. But for those that do, the idea gets passed to the implementation stage of “product development”. This is where it gets fun and the focus of this article.
The important thing to remember from the above paragraph is that a lot of smart people have high hopes for a new product idea that makes it through the opportunity filter. And from the “green light” decision until product launch, this optimism will bias the decisions that are made for the product. After all, no one wants to be working on a boring product they think will never sell.
Often the attention designing a new tech product or service is given to the extremes—the big, most visible product attributes like what it looks like and the main thing that it does, and also the very minute tech parts and protocols that customers will never see and often won’t know about. Assuming the idea has merit and the most obvious product traits are well defined, and assuming the small component parts are designed by smart engineers who know what they are doing, that leaves the product “middle” sometimes lacking attention. By the middle, I mean some of the secondary traits and features that have a major bearing on usability and overall value. This is often where a product succeeds or fails (again, assuming the idea was good in the first place, the thing acts and/or looks good, and the technical guts are all sound). For me, this amorphous middle includes traits like the visual user interface and/or tactile touch-points. It includes how the product or service fits in ergonomically and space-wise and time-wise with how people live their lives. It also includes connections to other products/services, power consumption, noise, battery life, how much is done for me automatically versus manual control (by the way, automatic is not always best if customers begin to resent a product that tries to be smarter than them) and a range of other factors.
The problem is that a lot of great ideas will emerge for the product, again capitalizing on the inherent enthusiasm in the process, but not all are good and not all can be done within the given funding. And here is where all the tough product trade-offs must be made. This is where the folks in charge of the product’s design need to divine what they think customers want. And this is often where not enough research is done, or it is done too late in the process. This is also where the team’s optimism and belief in its own talents often leads to bad decision-making. Without the time and resources to devote to the product “middle”, too often it is left to the team extremes to decide—senior executives trusting in their gut what is right for customers, or engineers trusting in their technical prowess.
Now as a marketing tech warrior for the past 17 years, I have been party to many of these feature trade-off conversations. And I can tell you, that while I have worked with some very brilliant people, it is a little like making sausage. There is a lot of hemming and hawing and debate. There are those that point to the 5-step product development process, so common in today’s tech organizations, to keep the team honest. There are lots of egos clashing. And many, many product review meetings and sometimes even the dreaded “off-site” (jargon for an expensive off-premises meeting where very little ever gets done). But still, not nearly enough interaction with prospective customers.
The best organizations I have been with have tried to rectify this problem by doing focus groups and surveys with customers. Actually, the very best product organizations I have been with accomplish this with a constant ongoing dialogue with customers about what their needs are. In the case where the product is just a new version of an existing product or service, that works just fine. But what to do when you are entering a new market or developing a completely new product? You need feedback somehow so surveys and focus groups (and purchasing market research from smart analysts) are usually the best method.
The problem with focus groups and surveys is the very same thing that forced product development organizations to “wing it” with gut decision making— the lack of time or money to do it right. With all the pressure to get a new product out the door, there may not be enough time or funding to get customer feedback early enough for it to matter. By the time products or services are at a point where they can be demoed for customers, many of the design decisions for alpha and beta products are already being made. That means there is a very short window of time to get customer feedback on the middle traits of the product. In my experience, it usually takes about six weeks to put together a good survey, send it out, gather responses, and analyze the data. Focus groups take even longer since you must define your target market and recruit enough of the right people who are willing to give up a few hours of their lives to give you feedback, and then you must schedule the facilities far enough in advance.
The other problem I see with both focus groups and online surveys is you never really know if the people you recruit represent your prospective customers, or if the group is tainted by people who have time on their hands. This is especially a problem for technical products, as opposed to say potato chips, because of the specificity of the target market in most cases.
The last problem I see is that while surveys might be cheap, a properly managed focus group project can cost you several tens of thousands of dollars… much more for multiple cities and countries. This cost includes the facilitator to moderate and analyze the data, and the cost of travel and on-site logistics. This is not usually a problem for larger companies but for start-ups it can be cost-prohibitive. The option of doing the focus group yourselves is also not advisable (I know from experience) since the cost of your time and that of your team is significant and you usually end of with a panel of familiar faces that are only doing it as a favor to you.
All this being said, focus groups and surveys are still the best way I know to “get outside the fishbowl” of product optimism, smart people, and technical smugness. The question is: how can you speed up this process and make it more affordable?
The answer is using the technologies and tools that are available today online, including surveys and virtual focus groups from vendors like Trender Research. The process is similar to conventional methods, but the cost and duration are much reduced. Instead of months to get it all done, you can get it done in a few weeks or less. And you have the added confidence of knowing your focus group participants in advance (we call them Trenders).
There are several ways to do this. While quick, custom surveys are easy to do, focus groups can take a variety of forms. Physical products can be shipped in advance, or, if that is not required, a private video demonstration of the product or service can be shared along with survey questions. The moderator can then conduct a conference call or video webinar (with the client observing) to solicit “organic” feedback much the same way a physical focus group does—without the time sink and cost. The whole process is accelerated because focus group selection comes from a known group of demographically diverse Trenders (or a specific demographic of your choosing) and the logistics are much easier since no one needs to travel anywhere, find a place to park, etc. The only downside is that you might miss some of the subtle body-language that skilled moderators might pick up. Some of that can still be captured through voice intonation, structured solicitation of participant feedback, or the use of webcams if possible and appropriate. But I think the trade-offs are worth it. You might also find that the online focus group experience yields some unexpected benefits. For example, the use of a group chat mechanism can be very powerful and allow multiple participants to literally talk at the same time, whereas live focus groups generally require participants to wait their turn until the moderator’s attention shifts to them— a pause that could lose valuable impromptu feedback. Another approach is to do both: one or two live focus groups, followed up by online surveys and virtual focus groups with participants from around the country or the world. That way you can broaden your feedback and test localized assumptions that may be more group-think than organic wisdom.
At the end of the day, the more feedback you get from your prospective customers the better the chances your product or service has at being adopted by them. Virtual focus groups can help. There is still plenty of room for smart people, both from the business side and technical side, to weigh in with their prodigious intellects. But now, at less cost and time and with better data, the “powers that be” have something meatier to munch on than filet mignon at the product off-site meeting.
Want to learn more? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.