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Designing with your Customers – Building Innovative Products that People Actually Want

Designing with your Customers – Building Innovative Products that People Actually Want

I know it’s been a while since my last post but I just got back from an Alpine climbing expedition in the Canadian Rockies. I would like to cover something I had plenty of time to think about while stuck in a tent on a glacier waiting for the weather to clear. It’s a topic that is important to anyone who is designing products – the balance between giving your customers what they want and surprising them with what they need.

If you simply ask customers what they want and bolt on the features they describe – you will quickly find yourself with a poorly designed product and, likely, a disappointed customer. I know our customers look to us to bring them value in ways that are refreshing and not incremental but still solve problems for them in a real way.

There is a constant balance between innovation and incrementalism that needs to take place to build great products. Many of the world’s great products that answered a need at the time, could not have been invented by a user-directed questionnaire or a product focus group. The car – ‘make horses go faster’; the lightbulb – ‘make candle wicks slower to burn’; the iPhone…this is just not how ALL great products, or even great features within products, are created.

Designing with your Customers – Building Innovative Products that People Actually WantI spend a lot of time discussing our roadmap with customers and partners. I’d like to think they know that their input is reflected in our product, and that they are happy with the results. As an example, we are often asked when annotation will be available as a feature within Solstice. In our context, ‘annotation’ typically means augmenting data that is being shared to a conference room display. However, other preexisting products have turned annotation into finger painting over content with a toolset that looks a lot like Microsoft paint from 1988. Based on our own studies, we’ve found that this type of ‘annotation’ has a utilization rate of less than 1%.

Could I simply bolt on this capability to Solstice and sell more product by checking this box? Of course. Would I do that to our customers? No way.

Instead, our job is to look behind the request for annotation to find out what customers really want. Why are they asking for it? What are the first principles behind the need to annotate multiple content sources in a meeting? How would people really want to collaboratively annotate a work surface if they hadn’t had to adopt the paint metaphor that came with Windows 3.11?

Our approach to designing new features is to treat our customers as partners during the design process. I regularly share storyboards and ideas with key partners as they emerge from our design group. Customers provide key insights but aren’t burdened with telling us exactly what they want – it’s our job to figure that out. The approach seems to work for us, so I wanted to share it with my readers.

If I had to sum up our approach it involves three aspects:

  1. Look for the need that drives a feature request.
    Ask yourself why a particular feature is being requested. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it takes a longer conversation about how users behave. How do they perceive value? This requires plenty of careful thinking about designing to discover the need behind the feature.
  2. Have your customers guide your thinking, but not lead it.
    Once you think you know what problem you need to address, begin with first principles in design. Are the current approaches to the feature the correct metaphor of interaction? Is there an opportunity to improve how it’s done? Make sure to include your customers during this phase, they will be the ones to tell you if your approach solves their problem or brings value.
  3. Propose plenty of ‘what if’s’.
    Make sure when you are in dialog with partners and customers that they understand what is possible. Ask the question, ‘What if you don’t ride a horse at all? Instead a machine carries you and others to your destination.’ Listen for their reactions, make the tradeoffs clear, and then design around the constraints.

At the end of the day, great products exceed expectations. They go beyond what users know they want or need, and they surprise and delight by solving a problem in an insightful, meaningful way. So the designers out there can’t depend on customer feedback exclusively for their design direction. The resulting products would most likely lack innovation not to mention coherence. But customer feedback shouldn’t be ignored either, since it sheds light on the needs of the market as well as areas to improve the product. In my experience, the best results have always come from learning what customers need, but then designing a solution that goes beyond what the customer asked for to surprise them with an innovative solution to their problem.

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