May 9, 2013

Build a useful product in four steps

With the amount of noise and hoards of information consumers take in everyday, it's quite a challenge to stand out and get noticed, especially in consumer markets. No amount of loud marketing or jazzy advertising will give you the reach unless your product adds some value in the life of a consumer.

Flipkart advertisements are cute but if the state of their customer service, delivery processes,  inventory and their shopping interface aren't what they are today, the ads wouldn't have much of an impact. In consumer behavior terminology, we call this as "attitude towards the ad" which inturn triggers the "attitude towards the brand". We might like the ad but the brand/product wouldn't gain much from the ad.

I would keep referring to this book again because it's one of my favorites. Marty Cagan talks about three important attributes of a product in his book "Inspired" - valuable, usable and feasible. Usefulness of a product is a factor of value and usability.

Valuable - the product adds value by solving a consumers' problem in a novel way or a better way than the available solutions and so the consumer is willing to pay a price for such value.
Usable - the consumer might find value but unless if the product/solution can be easily comprehended and understood, he might not be willing to invest his resources further - time, money or effort.

How to increase the usefulness of your product?

I would like to suggest four steps by which the usefulness of a product can be increased.

1. Focus on the "one" thing that the product is expected to perform remarkably

Recently, I started using "Workflowy", a list management application to track my to-dos/tasks. It's a simple and intuitive product that completely focuses on tracking tasks in a flow structure, similar to bullet points in a Word document.   The tasks could just be a single liner next action item (a GTD concept) or a project that involves multiple levels of subtasks. The product is so simple that it looks like an empty Word document. 

This product conveys a powerful message - Do the one thing that the user expects the product to do extremely well. Ignore the "bells and whistles".

2. Involve customers early in the product conceptualization stage

I firmly believe that any idea has to be validated with the market by talking to potential customers before taking the shape of a product. No amount of secondary research, prior domain knowledge/experience or just gut instinct will help unless you hear directly from customers. Elicit more details from customers on the specific problems you want to solve through your idea. Observe the body language, the environment where he lives, works and where he will be using your product.

I had the opportunity of going for a customer visit for a product that was in the initial conceptualization stage. Along with a business development manager, we went to different regions of New Delhi and interacted with varied groups of potential customers for a couple of days. It was a truly insightful experience, as a product manager. We were able to have casual conversations over tea, observe their work environment, take a look at their PCs and get a demo of the existing systems they use. These personal connections also come in handy while you want to get pilot customers' feedback before launching the product to the market.

A deep insight that came out during this visit was that we might develop a cutting edge product that performs brilliantly in high performance desktops and mobile but is that what customers actually use on a daily basis is something to think about. They might still be hanging onto Windows XP and Internet Explorer while the world has gone too far. Such kind of customer interactions help to unravel the ground realities.

3. Reduce feature clutter

More features doesn't translate to improved usefulness of a product. It might have a negative impact to the consumer, similar to the diminishing marginal utility concept in Economics.

We purchased a Bathla cloth dryer stand for our home a year ago. Our requirement was a bigger stand and the flexibility to move it around (wheels). The product met these requirements and so we found it to be of value while purchasing it. However for the sake of adding more features, the manufacturers have designed a complex product.

Two features that are unique in this product but totally unusable are
Adjustable hanging rods - It's quite difficult to move the rods and adjust the position. The designer of this product hasn't given a thought of where this product is going to be actually kept and used - which would be the balcony, terrace or garden. Dust accumulates near the edges, causing friction while moving the rods. As a result, the adjustability feature causes more irritation and I wish it was a normal, fixed set of rods
Socks holder - there is no way one can pin socks to the grooves provided. These grooves cannot be clipped together for them to hold socks tightly in their place.

A few years back, I was assigned the work of evaluating cloud based CRM products for my organization's sales team. One of those products was Zoho CRM, a complete CRM solution that covers lead pipeline, tracking your existing customers, exporting/importing contacts, issues tracker, dashboards etc. It was a feature-exhaustive product that satisfied most of CRM requirements. However, we found that the actual users i.e. the sales team members found the product to be extremely complex and unmanageable. When we enquired about the training costs, the quote was very high for a 2-3 day training program. Though we went ahead with the product, I'm not sure of its actual usage now.

In summary, more is not merrier.

While thinking of a new feature to be added to your product, think of these questions:
  1. Does it contribute to the core value of your product?
  2. Does it give you a competitive edge or competitive parity?
  3. Will this add more complexity to the existing feature set, from the point of view of the user/customer? (I'm not referring to the technology/architecture related complexity here)
4. Simplify the design

One of the ten principles of good design as given by Dieter Rams is that a good design makes a product useful. Design processes and principles should strive to keep the product as simple as possible.  The first three steps if taken care of will help this step immensely.

Simple products always win the race when it comes to usefulness. Coincidentally, as I was writing this article, I came across this tweet from @vijayanands

Dropbox solves a simple problem of sharing content across multiple devices and with multiple people. There were many solutions available earlier. I was using Yahoo! briefcase for a while and then tried Google docs before switching to Dropbox. The idea of creating a simple folder which is quite similar to other folders on our PC and syncing the contents automatically, without any manual intervention makes Dropbox an intuitive product. There is not much of a learning curve for any user and that's the beauty of it.

One of the underlying concepts of interaction design that I came across recently was that an interface need to behave like "magic".

"best interaction designs don’t exist: they don’t take a long time to load/respond; they don’t make users think; and they don’t give users cause for grief."

Do share your views on these 4 steps in building a useful product. I would also love to hear other relevant examples.


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