4 Things to Do Before You Start Your Next Product Development Project

How does your company decide what product to offer next? I am not talking about simply taking your last product and adding a few new colors or features–I am talking about a completely new product offering. Should you do a market study? Should you look at what your competition is doing? Should you sequester a small team in the nearest conference room and talk about it for days on end?

Product development can be more arbitrary than you might think. In fact, companies frequently treat the early stages of the process as something to get through so they can get to the real work of actually making something.

And once they decide, they rarely stop to consider their decision again. Even if they encounter evidence that tells them they are doing the wrong thing, they often choose to ignore that evidence because they have a rigid internal process to follow.

Large companies are great at getting quantitative data. How big is the market?  How fast is that market expected to grow?  What other companies are currently in their niche? What are the sub segments and the sub-sub-sub segments?

That is great information. But, at the end of the day, all it really tells you is: “Is there money to be made there?” Although that is obviously a very important question that needs answering, it does not tell you anything about what to make and how people will actually respond.

A successful product launch requires figuring out whether the human beings in that particular sub segment of the market have any interest in parting with their hard-earned cash to purchase what you are going to offer. Unfortunately, segmenting left, right, or upside-down will not tell you anything about that.

If you want to sell to humans, you need to understand them, their needs, and their context. What are the rules of the universe that you are trying to improve on their behalf?  After all, you are trying to make their lives better in some way, right?

Don’t Rely on Data Alone

Demographics might tell you a little. You will get a bunch of generalizations. Surveys and polls can also provide some clues. That is the easy part.

But how do you get the more meaningful insights? How do you find that itch they need to scratch?

Get Context

Take on the role of an anthropologist and get into “their” context. Every need arises from the meeting of a person and a context. That meeting of person and context creates a scenario–a situation in which people have a specific goal in mind.  Their goal may be to accomplish a task at work. It may be to have a relaxing driving experience.  Their goal may be to be beautiful. What is their unique situation?  What are the rules in that situation?  What are the things they would like to accomplish?

The only real way to identify the wants and needs of your customers is to get into their context. In other words, go to the source.  If you want to sell baseball equipment, go to live games, practices, and backyard pitch and catch.  If you want to sell medical devices, put on scrubs and experience the operating room. If you want to sell office equipment, observe people during their workday.

Meet a Need

No scenario is optimal for everyone. This means there will always be ways to do things better. With the right combination of practice, training, and tools you will be able to identify where things are going wrong for people, or where they are not going right enough.

You will find frustration–things people do to work around the products and services that are supposed to help them but don’t. Identify opportunities to change those situations for the better. You will find market needs and be better equipped to meet those needs. You will be selling snow shovels in a blizzard instead of a torrential downpour.

Be a Scientist

Feeling a little panic? How will you know if you have seen a real need?  What if your customers do not react to your product offering the way you hoped they would?

Do not worry. You typically will not move straight from insight to product. You are already observing customers and learning about them. Do not stop just because you have learned something. Now it is time to test.

You have a theory. You think you know something about a customer and what they need.  Do not run to meet that need with a product or service without checking with them first.

Test your idea. Prototype it. Test it again. Get your customers to react. Let them guide you to the right offering.  They may not have been able to tell you what they needed, but they can tell you if you got it right. Most importantly, they can tell you whether they would actually buy it.

2 thoughts on “4 Things to Do Before You Start Your Next Product Development Project

  1. Thanks for sharing the insight that customers may not be able to tell you what they need but “they can tell you if you got it right.”

    In some situations, A/B testing (split testing) may be a sufficient experimental method to gauge the preference for a particular proposal.

    In other cases (and especially in new product development), it may take dozens of experimental cycles with the best designers and designs to synthesize the context appropriate solution that meets the criteria for a product development project.

  2. Mark,
    Great point. I’ve actually started putting together a post on the iterative nature of prototyping and how it can be used to get answers. Also see our earlier post on Low Fidelity prototyping.


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