I have been pondering product development partly because a client that makes some of the greatest designs is interested in working with me. It is always fun to support world class product development. I thought I’d share some advanced thinking about innovation and technical avant-garde product development as I gear up.
It’s hard for me to think about product development without thinking about failure. The best product managers fail more often than not. Among product managers and product developers who keep track and follow best practices and are part of the Product Development Managers Association (all things that should help improve success) the failure rate is more than nine in ten. And, even more fail to meet market estimates or goals. So how do you overcome failure? You must look at the product with all the human senses and emotions if you want to have dramatic success.
I once heard a chef say that they were the only true product developers, because they tantalize all of the senses. And in fact, food is amazing in this regard. It is often helpful to think of your product as a dish at a restaurant. What kind of dish would it be? Would it be avant-garde, meat and potatoes, new age veggie delight? However, if you are looking to really knock the socks off of a customer, think about the whole experience and how you can entice all five senses of your potential customer. Because the brain, and its connection to the five senses, last even if the experience isn’t real. The great advertisers understand this and “anchor” things that seem to have nothing to do with products. However, if you are like most people, you have thought about food and had your mouth water, or thought about running your tongue over a lemon and puckering – or perhaps you are old enough to remember chalk boards??
The first step in overcoming product launch and development barriers is to accept that the customer will not understand your product and attempt to do everything you can to get them to. When doing Kano analysis and other techniques with Engineers, it often is the case that the Engineers have made faulty assumptions that the customer will understand this feature or that feauture – like we are all Engineers. This is especially true when writing “instructions” or advertising copy or almost any text. An early mentor and colleague of mine named Mary Frances used to have a quote that I’ve borrowed many times: “Clear writers assume, with a pessimism born of experience, that what isn’t plainly stated, will invariably misconstrue.” John R. Trimble. For many, Trimble wrote the book on writing and you can buy it at Amazon.com.
Assume ahead of time that your product may not be a success and put systems in place to make re-launches and future offerings more successful. It is rare that a product is a hit from the start. Put systems in place to improve that product knowing that you need data to show the stakeholders how you do not stack up against the competition or how you can improve. Most product innovation comes from talking to the customer – so talk to them.
The term technical avant-garde (TAG) is something that is easier said than done. I think most people, even with degrees in marketing and French don’t quite understand the “bleeding edge.” In concept, people talk about ideation and innovation and they understand that it has value. In cooking, my chef friend would say that avant-garde cooking happens when food becomes art and involves all the senses. That is good, but it is really a step further, beyond the guard of previous experience when you cross the technical avant-garde line and create an experience that is separate from what you previously experienced. In fact, some people in certain circles have an easier time understanding TAG when it is thought of as Technical Art. When products create raving fans, who are getting great value, and will pay more for each product purchased.
I’ll give three experiences, as examples. One is some glasses I bought from Technical Avant Garde Heuer. Most well known for their TAG Heuer watches, this company now makes fantastic rimless glasses that have rubberized over the ear and temple pieces that are thin and flexible (think skinny and flexible almost like Gumby). Do not underestimate the out-of-the-box experience. Theses glasses were actually a gift, and they “popped” out of their cool and funky case and then the rubberized temple and over the ear pieces, easily slide over your ear and are comfortable even when you press a phone firmly to your ear. The rimless glass provides a great unobstructed view and they are so light you don’t really even notice them until, many, many people say: cool glasses.
Next, let’s talk about one of my favorite topics, bicycles. I have an electric bicycle that often leaves me stranded, even though when it is fully charged it is great. It often is like peddling a tank when the battery or a fuse blows. Some day, when my knees are gone, I expect that I’ll have a Segway or better electric bike for getting around. I presented some research results to the gentleman that created the hype around the Segway, and like things that are not cars, this gentleman is a marketing genius. But genius with Segways and bicycles doesn’t necessarily translate to the point where the product is art, and functional, and there is a demand and customer group that will pay for them.
One example of a bike that in my mind is TAG but is a failure is the Biomega folding bike that I believe is only available in Culver City and Puma flagship stores. This bike folds so you can easily carry it on mass transportation and it has large ergonomic durable metal pieces for carrying small and large items. It even has a custom “race grill” that you can outfit with the number 13 – in support of Research 13. Biomega is like Ziba Design, that is ruled by a Danish queen. An awesome product, it is beautiful like art, it is the type of bike that people would say: cool bike to you and be glad that it is not taking up so much room in the elevator. Like Mac computers, Biomega may not care that I think it is a failure because of small volume sales. My technical avant-garde chef friend only has one restaurant so that he can be true to his craft and he takes 8 months off a year so he can “create” and study.
Finally, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best in the world at creating TAG products that sell. I have worked with top MP3 player researchers as they create top selling products. It is hard to say that the iPhone and iTouch are anything like their predecessors in experience, even though they don’t look that much different in terms of features to the products they replaced. It comes down to experience.
I was working for BMW cars and studying their service. I was conducting focus groups for BMW and as part of this work BMW North America research plans and techniques were shared with me. This included a look at the reports that come from those surveys that are completed right after you buy or visit a dealership. What was interesting to me was how one dealership shined in their customers eyes. I walked around the dealership and it was no different than dealerships I’ve visited in Salem, Oregon or Manhattan, New York. But I was particularly interested in the speed with which this dealership moved when they drove people’s cars around.
Cleanly dressed and extremely polite BMW technicians would get in the cars and speedily move and park cars for their owners to drive off in them. The thing is, this was different than other dealers, so I attempted to get my head around it. It didn’t come up in focus groups, but it seemed like these guys, at least I didn’t see any gals, were driving the cars of their customers “too fast.” So I approached the manager of this store about this topic and he said:
Oh I love it when a customer says “don’t you think that guy is driving my car too fast” because then I will ask the customer “why do you say that?”. And the customer will usually reply, well it seems like that would be hard on the car to drive it like that. Which let’s me reply, BMWs are the “ultimate driving machine,” and while they are luxury cars for most of us, they are designed to be driven like that and run like a Swiss watch.
This particular BMW store manager has had his store grow dramatically compared to others in the region, and he even has an answer for my chef friend who says food is the only product that involves all of the senses. When people drive off in a new car, or after service, in addition to the car being freshly detailed, there is also gourmet chocolate on the dash in gold foil.
Perhaps you should consider a Hershey’s Kiss in the box with your next product offering to help along your “out of box” experience. Walt Disney used to talk about his products and services as entertainment. Take your product development to a whole new level by thrilling your customers – and break down their garde.