Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Low Friction Products; Touch-and-go Development

composite image of modern TV remote control next to an Apple iPod music player
Guess which one of these two products was designed by engineering experts. This is not a trick question. I am being as serious as a heart attack.
For many years, engineers have been designing ever more complex remotes. Technological features have become the dominant factor in product development to the dismay of consumers. So it took for a group of non-expert outsiders to come up with a simple handheld device that would be capable of hundreds of functions; all with just two buttons. The rest, as they say, is history.
The iPod started it's product development life by ignoring all industry expert assumptions and went on to become the first member in a very successful family of products. The resulting Apple products reached every segment of the consumer population; thus shattering any and all sales metrics.
How? By assuming that the experts were wrong and that humans were right, Apple designers went away from the prevailing product development dogmas and focused instead on what any human would find simple to use. Their method went well beyond focusing on ergonomics. The remote to the left has buttons hierarchically located, shaped and colored with the exact goal of achieving great ergonomic performance; or at least that is what the experts that created it thought.
On the other hand, the iPod focuses on the elimination of all friction. Like with any long lasting machine, low operational friction was the key. By being simple to interface with, the iPod is a much more welcoming product that the usual TV remote control. But do we think that remote control companies have learned a lesson? No way! Long established dogmas are hard to leave behind.
This begs the question: how do you do product development? What is your focus?
color image of 'Why We Buy' book by Paco Underhill
Why We Buy by Paco Underhill
After a couple of decades of product development experience, it surprises me how often I come across products that ignore friction. These products are difficult to be placed in stores. Their packaging makes it difficult to sell. And, as if things weren't bad enough, users find them difficult to use. In other words, there is friction around every aspect of product supply-chain and performance.
Paco Underhill in 'Why We Buy' covers many of the behavioral nuances that matter most to consumers. While Paco strongly focuses on retail-anthropology, there are many valuable angles to be understood about how users feel and think.
But I guess that I should not be surprised with under-performing products everywhere. Most products are designed based on a consumer need. As long as they solve a problem consumers have, product development engineers completely ignore all else. This might have been enough years ago. Still, today we play by high performance rules.
Think of it within the following context. Let's say that I am on a boat that capsizes away from port. As I try to stay alive, I have access to one of the most effective lifesavers in the industry; the most clever and feature-loaded product. The problem is that it isn't clear how it's supposed to be used. It is so advanced that it requires the equivalent to a college degree before it can be used. So, I die.
Have you noticed that most consumers don't take advantage of most of your product features? Do you wonder why? In a way you are leaving them stranded.
color image of Clayton Christensen's book 'Innovator's Dilemma'
Innovator's Dilemma
by Clayton Christensen
Often the problem is that you confuse progress with evolution. To the many remote control engineers out there, more features is progress. To their customers, it just turns a bad design into something much worse.
First, let's get something clear. If you have a Cash Cow, a product that makes you lots of money with little effort thanks to the fact that it is well established among your customers, don't ever attempt to turn it into a disruptor. You won't be able to. Clayton Christensen, in his fantastic book 'Innovator's Dilemma', clearly demonstrated how companies are trapped by their existing product successes. To then assume that radical change can be made to such Cash Cows would be both, foolish and wasteful. So, identify these Cash Cows as soon as possible and make sure that your best designers create efficient face-lifts and product extensions that can keep the product fresh but without ever killing the golden goose or your development budget. Efficiency is the key. Don't waste time or money fixing your old mistakes. Keep the money coming in and move on.
color image of 'Blue Ocean Strategy' by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim
'Blue Ocean Strategy'
by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim
Meanwhile, look at new unsolved product design opportunities and come up with industry disruptors that demonstrate that you can design low friction products. Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim describe in 'Blue Ocean Strategy' the kind of mindset needed to find new angles that can become competition-proof over the long run. This is important because, the longer that you can play in a new field without competition, the easier it will be to ensure recovering your investment and reaching profitability.
Still, success can be achieved even if your new product faces a low barrier of entry into the category. As long as you stick to low friction designs, your product will retain the advantage.
To create a successful new product or service begin by clearly laying out consumer needs. Keep meetings short. Most product managers force their team members to use their brain's neocortex to come up with smart solutions. They ask them to consciously think. But while the most advanced part of the brain is great with simple decision making, it is horrible with complex, multidimensional problems. Instead, saturate the team with data and end the meeting early. It's a touch-and-go strategy. Meet again the next day and do another touch-and-go session where you give them more data. End the meeting by asking each member to bring sketches of any ideas they may have to the next day's meeting. So far, both meetings have taken less than half an hour in total.
For the next meeting, have each member present any new ideas they came across. This is the third time that you will be passing information in a touch-and-go form. But now, you will ask two people or teams, depending on the size of your group and the importance of the project, to come up with a way to bring all the ideas together. This methodology periodically results in four to five very viable and innovative approaches to address consumer needs.
Touch-and-go DevelopmentNext, bring in average people and ask them to identify friction. Ask them to note the areas that are cryptic and difficult to understand or use. Bring the findings to the whole team once again as part of another touch-and-go session. Ask the team members to once again come up with sketches of any ideas they may have. End the meeting quickly by asking two people to put the ideas shown together.
With less that two hours-worth of total meeting time, you should be close to having a new low friction product and a new company culture.
Make sure that packaging, pricing and all supporting marketing materials go through the same process to ensure low friction through out.
As experience grows, low friction products and services will be easier to develop.
The best product development isn't about the company, packaging colors or technological features. No. To do fantastic products, experts must bathe in humility and realize that they know nothing. They must put technology aside and listen to the signals that help us understand how it is that humans function. Successful product development is about frictionless products and services that grant ease access to all with the need. The key phrase among all these thoughts is: to give access.

I have written a couple of other articles on the books discussed in this article:

Innovator's Dilemma
Clayton Christensen
2013 Top 20 Business Books List (Part II)

Why We Buy
Paco Underhill
2013 Top 20 Business Books List (Part I)

Why We Buy
Paco Underhill
Paco - Shopping and Anthropology

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