Lesson #5 of Turning Ideas into Market-Winning Products.
Do you think you know what is best for your customers? A fatal error a product team can make is to believe they know more than the customer. As Groupon founder Andrew Mason shared at a Meetup, “You’re way too dumb to figure out if your idea is good – it is up to the [customers].” While I disagree with Mason (I know you are not dumb!), he makes a good point – customers can frequently surprise you and product developers can forget this.
Why This Lesson is Important and What You Will Learn
After reading this lesson you will be able define “Voice of the Customer” (VOC) and discover some tools to help uncover what customers want.
Voice of the Customer (VOC) is an often-misused term associated with product development and innovation. It is a term used in business to describe the process of capturing a customer’s requirements. Specifically, VOC is a market research technique that produces a detailed set of customer wants and needs, organized into a hierarchy and then prioritized in terms of relative importance and satisfaction with current alternatives. VOC studies consist of both qualitative and quantitative research steps.
Some organizations collect thousands of ideas each year; others prefer methods that create a few focused ideas. Various VOC methods satisfy either objective.
Robert Cooper’s book, Winning at New Products, references eight VOC research methods for generating ideas by exposing and identifying the needs of the customer:
1. Ethnographic research (user observations).
2. Customer visit teams.
3. Customer focus groups for problem detection.
4. Lead user analysis.
5. Customer/user designs.
6. Customer/user brainstorming.
7. Customer/user advisory board or panel.
8. Community of enthusiasts.
It is beyond the scope of this lesson to address each of these VOC methods, but applying the perspective they share can help your innovation efforts immediately. The common mistake made with VOC is expecting customers to directly describe their unsatisfied problem, define their needs, or list their requirements. A quote famously attributed to Henry Ford states this well:
“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse!”
Several studies suggest that the direct approach results in misleading information. Why? A characteristic of human behavior is the difficulty of articulating what we want before we see it. We even struggle when exposed to problem-solving scenarios in the context of the problem at hand. Customers often describe their problems in terms of a solution, leaving you and the product team to reverse engineer the solution to define the real problem.
Instead of asking customers what they want, another option is to observe them. The first method on Cooper’s list above is also my personal favorite: ethnography. Observing users allows researchers clear insight into their preferences and removes the obstacles inherent in human behavior. I wrote about this topic further in The PDMA Toolbook 3. The example below, cited in the book, illustrates how ethnographic research shines light on one highly engaged and opinionated user’s behavior.
Product designers conducted research in Germany to improve a farm tractor. A focus group of farmers was asked about their tractors. One farmer responded that his tractor was perfect and he emphatically requested that the next model remain unchanged. During an interview in the same farmer’s home, he reiterated his position that the tractor was perfect as-is. The designers asked to see the tractor. He then proudly showed them his “perfect” tractor, which he had personally customized with over 20 modifications. Only after observing the farmer’s tractor did the design team have a better appreciation for what the farmer considered to be the perfect tractor. Relying only on what the farmer said would have produced very misleading research results.
In this example, to generate ideas for a new and improved version of the tractor, the researchers:
1. Formed focus groups and asked customers for ideas.
2. Visited customers in their homes and asked for ideas.
3. Observed customers’ actual tractors and how they used them.
The most helpful ideas – the seeds of innovation – came from observations.
Of course, visiting and interviewing customers generates helpful ideas when the study is done well. Unfortunately, too often these activities miss the real story because they fail to unearth all aspects of the consumer’s behavior. Cost restrictions and/or thoroughness of the study sometimes hinder the return on a group’s investment in this type of research. Some insight is better than none, though; observing customers in their environment and dealing with the problem or job that can be improved frequently leads to greater understanding.
Back in the first lesson you learned about the customer’s need and desire for products that create value. This theme recurs several times throughout the lessons. Customers do not buy product features but make purchasing decisions based on the value the products’ benefits create. You can’t possibly be expected to get this right on your own. To put it another way, you don’t know more than the customer knows. VOC is how you learn what customers value.
The Everyday Innovator™
P.S. VOC research methods are what lead to successful innovations but can be tricky to use. Check out the Foundations of Product Innovation Leadership eCourses to learn how product developers apply VOC techniques.