Being at a user’s mercy is a product manager’s worst nightmare come true. But it’s exactly what lays the foundation for long term success.
Gurcharan Das joined Richardson Hindustan Ltd. as part of the marketing team for Vicks Vaporub. A month later, he was sent ‘up-country’ to understand the audience. Marketing could be learned only in the bazaar, believed his general manager. During the day, Gurcharan Das would visit merchants and conduct market research. In the evenings when merchants were too busy, he would visit consumers’ homes.
On one such home visit in Surat, he knocked on a door. A woman reluctantly opened it. After a few pleasantries, he asked what her family did to treat cold and cough. Her face instantly lit up, and she declared that she had discovered a wonderful solution. She brought a kettle containing boiling water from the kitchen. She added a spoon of Vicks Vaporub in it. Together, they inhaled Vicks. This, she explained, was what her family did when they suffered from cough or cold. When Gurcharan Das informed her that he worked for Vicks Vaporub, she was in raptures. She gifted him a box of sweets as a token of gratitude, because her whole family had been raised on Vicks. Her enthusiasm infected him. Gurcharan Das would never forget the lesson. And neither will I. But for different reasons.
This incident gave Gurcharan Das a new-found respect for his job, he wrote. Plus, it helped the marketing team immensely to find a positioning to make Vicks a household name.
It taught me something too: you can never predict how users will use your product. So try, but don’t try. Try adding value in people’s lives through your product or service. But don’t try to make them use your offering the way you want them to. Instead, go the other way.
“Design is not just how it looks. Design is also how it functions”, Steve Jobs had famously said. But in a saddening article, Fast Company pointed out that Apple has compromised on the simplistic elements of design in favor of beauty. Even worse, competitors are following suit. As a result, devices have become intelligent; probably too intelligent for us. Every few days, my mom says, “I’m too stupid to use this iPad.” Is that what products should do? Possess so many features that their intricacies make us feel stupid? Or is about enhancing user experience?
We understand that value is the sweet spot where, what we offer and what people need, merge. Unfortunately, the chasm between these aspects keeps widening with each unwanted feature.
You can pack your offering with one hundred features, of which ninety seven will never be touched. Or you can launch your offering as a minimum viable product, collect in-depth feedback from users, and build on it. The former is why numerous startups shut down within months of raising millions in funding. The latter is what makes a product or service truly successful.
Here are a couple of instances. The first is a marketing strategy gone horribly wrong, and then corrected, thanks to subtle hints dropped by users. The second is an exceptional example of optimizing resources to benefit the entity and users, solely through feedback.
When P&G launched Febreze, they marketed it as a disinfectant which removed odors from people’s homes. But that strategy bombed. After intense research on consumers, they realized that focus group testing had led them the wrong way. In focus groups, people were vocal about their desire to remove bad odors from their lives (and houses). In reality, they barely could identify bad odors at home. For instance, the team visited a woman who owned nine cats. The odor was so terrible that one of the team members almost gagged. But when the owner was asked whether the house smelled bad, she denied. You see, she was accustomed to the smell. So much that it had become part of her daily life. Febreze was a flop and on the verge of being discontinued.
Then the team met a woman who used up a bottle of Febreze every two weeks. She loved it, not because it freed her home of bad odors, but because it was the final step in her cleaning process. After she laid new bedsheets, she would spray Febreze twice on them. Taking this cue, the team added fragrances and marketed it as a product that completes the home-cleaning ritual. The rest, as they say, is history.
The second example is The University of California. They used user feedback brilliantly. When they built The University of California, they just installed the buildings and grass. There were no sidewalks. The next year they came back and put the sidewalks where the trails were in the grass.
I meet many business owners and executives who are averse to speaking to their customers. “Steve Jobs never conducted market research,” they say. And they are right. Partly.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
There is speculation about whether Henry Ford really said this, but the statement makes complete sense. As a designer, you are expected to know what the target market wants (no pressure here). As a marketer, you should position the (already developed) product or service perfectly according to your target audience’s need (again, no pressure). Your team might conduct focus group interviews and market research. But nothing will reveal the true picture like feedback after your offering is in the market.
Ask your customers what they want and they will almost always say “more for less”. Or they will send you on a wild goose hunt (ask the Febreze team). But talk to them after they use your offering, and they will give you insights that you never had imagined (ask Gurcharan Das and The UoC).
Data collection is not just the duty of the sales team. Marketing and product development should take equal interest. And once user feedback is implemented, it should be communicated effectively. Steve Tobak puts it brilliantly when he says that‘Product development and marketing should be tied at the hip’. Often, positioning fails abysmally because marketing knows little about the philosophy behind the product. Until recently, marketing was a department on the periphery, in a silo. They were handed a completed product with little information and told to market it. There are similar expectations from sales personnel. Only their job is tougher. They are handed a completed product with little information, and told to sell it.
So take Biz Stones’s advice. Ship your product or service with minimum features. Stone asks his team to identify the features which should be shipped as default, given the various choices. That becomes the default product. Simple. Think about it. How often do you like navigating beyond the dashboard into the Settings tab? You just want something that works well.
To excel, you need feedback. For your product, your marketing positioning… heck, even for the text of your search engine ads and social media status updates. It is not easy. It takes immense resolve to do this. To let go. By letting go, you reduce your heartache and self doubt. And you build something that people love, that they trust… something that they cannot wait to use again. Think about the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment you feel after that.