I imagine the engineers and R&D teams working diligently for months, years even, on new products to roll out at the next big trade show. They’ve innovated, broken through with new levels of sophistication and — best of all — it’s going to allow for increased margins! It’s a win — until…
The first day of the trade show opens and a prospect walks into your booth and listens as your team excitedly shares about your amazing new product. The prospect then says these dreaded words: “That’s great, but if it only did this, then it would be exactly what I need.” The excitement is replaced with disappointment, and the sales cycle takes an unexpected turn.
Building the Perfect Thing Nobody Wants
Fast Company recently editorialized that Microsoft built “the perfect OS that nobody wants.” The new interface (dubbed Metro) didn’t bring droves of new customers to a company that’s been losing market share to Apple for years, and its new Surface has been viewed as a nearly $1 billion dollar bust.
“…nowhere is consumer response more apparent than in how Microsoft has backpedaled, reinstating the Start button in Windows 8.1. This one button drove the Windows interface for almost 20 years. Removing it in Windows 8 marked a paradigm shift of the company’s UI. And bringing the Start button back signifies that consumers never wanted something new in the first place.” — FastCompany
It is a very rare product (much less company) that can live up to the famous/infamous quote by Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc.: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Microsoft’s foible illustrates that Jobs’ quote isn’t going to be accurate some (most) of the time.
The deflating comment by the prospect at the trade show is illustrative of how users will often identify your product uniquely to their own context. It’s not that they aren’t a fan of your cool new device, but that they are not looking at specs, features and benefits, but of their own application.
Build What People Want
Of course, it sounds simple enough to try and design what users want; the problem is that the various vertical markets have enough unique needs that it is unlikely that your products will fit perfectly into a variety of applications. How can you build or install the system people want when you can’t possibly know every application?
I’ve long been a proponent of manufacturers making software GUIs (Graphical User Interface) that can be customized and contextualized by the user. When you ask a cross-section of any vertical market what their unique needs are for a product like yours, it often becomes clear where your product has overlap in applications and where it needs some level of customization.
One manufacturer heard from a number of church market users that one of their new products (a file-based video recorder/player) was almost what they needed. It turns out that the solution involved a firmware upgrade and a new web interface to make their device fit the church market supremely. By making their device able to be slaved to multiple units and providing a simple web interface to connect to the device (which already had an Ethernet port). This particular device has been a hot seller in the house of worship space ever since they implemented those requested updates.
The feedback-loop must be available for manufacturers, rep firms, and systems integrators to hear from existing clients and prospects to influence future releases and new products. If you’re not listening, there’s no way to avoid the “if only your product did this…” conundrum.
Fundamentally, building a new product is a significant undertaking of time and resources. The UI (User Interface) and UX (User Experience) need not only to focus on what it means to operate the device as the manufacturer intended, but on how the various vertical market users intend to operate it.
For devices with a UI, this can be as simple as various levels of easy customization (labeling, admin level vs. user level vs. volunteer operator level controls, etc.). And for devices without a built-in UI, a web interface is frankly a “must” in today’s world. Telling a user they are limited to using your new device in only the manner in which an engineer conceived it is an outdated way of thinking. Think end-user first, and the little controls and personalization elements that are easy to add during design are a huge step towards higher adoption rates across vertical markets when the product is released.
When possible, manufacturers need to think about how to make everything they make (well, most anything they make) IP addressable. Beyond browser-based interfaces and web connectivity, the need will only increase for full-fledged apps to control/address/configure devices from a multi-touch screen tablet. The App ecosystem is powerful (and can even be a premium feature that generates revenue) and makes buying decisions even easier for users that are doing more with less support staff.
Open Source Beats Proprietary
Perhaps the biggest trend that fits within this user-centric viewpoint is the release of the death-grip the A/V/L industry seems to have on using proprietary controls/tools/connectivity. Can I be blunt? 1990 has called and it wants all RS232 serial ports back. Ethernet, baby, Ethernet.
And while we’re at it, build your web-enabled software as open source. Let the user community build it out as they see fit. They’re the users, after all. There really is no excuse for not relinquishing control of your proprietary code and embracing the reality of the 21st century’s model of sharing and collaboration.
Chances are, if you just take the simple steps in this one article to heart, you’ll hear a whole lot less variations of “If only your device did this…” and hear many more “That’s exactly what we need,” regardless of their application.
So…how are you designing new products with end-users in mind? How are you getting their input BEFORE you go to market? Comment below!