Four Rules of (Really) Customer-Centric Product Development

  • March 2010
  • Posted By Janet Muto

by Janet Muto

I’ve been involved with technology companies of all sizes and shapes for more years than I like to admit. And I’ve found one absolute truth: success happens when customer feedback informs the product development process – from initial idea through commercialization.
That means that the best ideas do not always develop into the best products. Rather, it’s often the idea that’s exceptionally executed from innovation to market launch that becomes a homerun. Sound like a no-brainer? Then why do so many new products fail? (For more on this topic, see Nitzan Shaer’s blog post “Why do fewer than 5% of new product launches succeed?”).

Products fail because companies either don’t listen to their customers, or if they are listening, they may be asking the wrong questions at the wrong time or to the wrong audience. Often companies do not delve deeply enough into customer wants and needs, and they are not incorporating what they hear into product iterations. So without further ado, here are my four rules for (really) customer-centric product development:

1) Listen early, listen often, listen differently
You must listen and involve prospective customers in your innovation and ideation process first, and then at multiple times during the product development process. This way, you’ll find that when you have to make changes (and you will), the scope of these changes will be inversely proportional to the customer listening intervals. You should also “change it up” by applying different methods of information gathering to different questions you are trying to solve, for example, brainstorming for product ideation is very different from quantitative questioning for packaging preferences.

2) Ask the right questions
We’ve all learned from political polls and media gurus that how you ask a question can completely change the answers given. This applies to your customer research as well. The right question and method of questioning (surveys, interviews, focus groups, usability tests) can make a huge difference in the outcome. Take the time to design the right approach and the right questions – as well as the right follow on questions. It is also important that you know how you are going to weight or rank the answers. Establishing criteria before you write the questions can actually help you develop your questions.

3) Dig deep
Don’t take your customers’ answers at face value. A customer-centric approach is a data-driven one. Look deeply into the data (there are lots of great tools to apply to your data once you have it – e.g. conjoint or max/diff surveys to tease out the most valuable features and positioning). Most often, the answers you need will be in the detail. Make sure you have the quantitative muscle to get deep into the data to get at the right answers.

4) Invest now (or pay later)
The cost of not including customers in your product development process is far more than any of the costs associated with continuous customer feedback.

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll expand on how you can listen to your customers (and prospective customers) to identify new product ideas, develop actual products, and optimize products for market success.

How have you incorporated customer feedback into your product development process? Join the discussion…


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