Sunday, April 7, 2013

How to Discover the Perfect Product Design

As an engineering my first instinct is to code first and ask questions later.  At best this results in a product I love, but nobody else cares about.  At worst, it can tie up an entire development team coding product iterations for ages.  So, how can we build the right product the first time around? 

Customer Development.

This is a completely customer centric approach to design pioneered by Steve Blank (who has built several successful companies with it himself).   The basic idea is to start by understanding the customer and then to create a product that suits their needs.  This is the opposite of many traditional companies that build products fist and then test market adoption afterwards.

The fundamental reason this works is that for many products you can test market adoption without a product. 

From my experience 80%+ of a product is in the design – and can be validated with a high fidelity mockup – which is a tenth of the cost of a prototype.  This means you’re getting 80% of the value at 10% of the price.   And, even is money is no object, it will increase you ability to iterate by 10x.

So practically speaking – how does this work?  Here is my simplified 7 step process:

1 - Start with a Thesis and a Mockup

Spent a day (or less) identifying the customer (ie salespeople) and designing the product they want (a mobile notes platform).

2-Make a List

In Excel make a list with the following columns: first name, last name, email, title, company, notes.  Then fill this sheet with as many names of potential customers as you can find.  Great sources for customers are:

  • Your personal/professional network
  • 2nd degree connections (ask your friends/colleagues if they know potential customers)
  • Alumni networks
  • Linkedin – just search around and send polite messages to relevant folks.
  • Local professional groups.  Most industries have some manner of in person meetings. Just look on google, meetups, blogs to find these.
  • Contact people via twitter/their blog/their personal/company website.

3-Send out Emails

Send the people on the list a short and polite email.  Example:

Hi Mr. Smith,

I’m working on a mobile product for sales people and found your name on Linkedin.  Your experience at ACompany looked very relevant to my project.  Do you have 15 minutes to talk in the next few days? 



4-Conduct Interviews

Sent a lot of those emails out.  Expect less than half to respond.  For the folks that do set up time to talk in person or over the phone have a script ready.  The conversation can flow naturally, but you want to carefully ask questions that start very broadly and then become narrower.  The goal here is to learn as much as possible about the customer without influencing their perspective with your ideas. Example:

  1. What do you do?
  2. Can you walk me through a typical day for you?
  3. How many in person meetings do you have per week on average?
  4. How do you record notes during these meetings?
  5. How do you use those notes before the next meeting?
  6. Would you use a mobile notes platform?
  7. Would you use this mobile notes platform (show your mockup)?

*Note: surveys DO NOT COUNT.  You need to have a 1:1 conversation with a customer to truly understand every aspect of his or her life possible.  Surveys presume you know all possible answers before they are offered.  You probably don’t.

5-Followup with Iterations

The greatest reward you can give these potential customer for your time is the satisfaction of seeing the impact of their ideas and feedback. Be thankful (and always send a follow-up note).  Also, keep in touch to let them know about subsequently iterations of the product and to continue getting their feedback on your designs.

6- Sell!

Eventually, through many iterations your product should get to the point where customers are excited and ready to buy.  This is the point where begin to build!  Then, when it’s all done you can sell it to a ready and eager customer base waiting to buy!

7-Groom Evangelists

The last, (but not least) step is to followup with customers using your product and improve their experiences.  If they are ecstatic about your product encourage and provide a channel for them to reach other customers (through their own social media networks, a company blog, whitepapers etc).

That’s it!  If you follow these simple seven steps you will avoid the engineer’s folly of building a great product that nobody wants!  As Steve Blank is fond of saying “Get out of the building and talk to customer!”.