Faster horses vs. Model T

Richard Eppel led a session at yesterday’s ProductCamp Austin about creating innovative products that customers want to buy. Here are my notes and thoughts:

If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses. Instead, he heard what they really wanted – a better way to get from A to B – and produced the Model T.

This story illustrates the shift in mindset Richard encourages companies to make. Too often, we ask our customers what they want and the responses we get are vague and full of solutions. The customers look to us to tell them what they need. Talk about a role reversal! They are experts on their needs, we are experts at developing innovative solutions. It’s our responsibility to keep each side in its own domain.

The first way to do that is to ask about your customers’ worlds, what they want to accomplish, what’s working for them, what’s not. Don’t ask them for solutions – those are your job. The most valuable, relevant information you can have is what your customers want to do. Once you have that, you can put together what Richard calls a functional job statement and an outcome statement.

Functional job statement:

Action verb + action object + context + specific outcomes

Ex: Capture + billable time + on mobile phones + accurately, easily

Outcome statement:

Direction of improvement + unit of measure + object of control + context + outcome

Ex: Decrease + time spent + logging billable hours + from the road + to increase revenue

You can then use these statements to validate with your customers that you’re tackling the right problem and that you’ll be offering a solution that’s meaningful to them. You can also use the statements to rally everyone within your organization to think about the user. Neither statement contains or even hints at solutions (be wary – solutions have a way of sneaking themselves in), so the sort of imagination, creativity, and resourcefulness that led to the Model T.

Once you have satisfied – even delighted – your current customers, you may want to provide solutions that attract new customers. Start by surveying a larger population. Ask them what they are trying to accomplish – then ask about their satisfaction with existing solutions and the importance of each activity. If you plot these with satisfaction on the y-axis and importance on the x-axis, you’ll clearly see where to target your efforts.*

When it comes time to market your solutions, refer back to the outcome statement. If you did your homework correctly, that message should really resonate with your target market. You’re giving them a better way to get from A to B.

* Hint: it’s in the lower right-hand corner.

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