Great story, Chuck. I think customers absolutely have to be part of the process in terms of vetting requirements and garnering feedback. The danger, as all of you well noted, is having the customer drive the product development effort. That gets dicey because as Steve Jobs well noted, customers can't envision the next great product innovation. They can tell you what they like and don't like regarding existing capabilities, but they can't see the future.
In the outboard engine industry, customer experience is paramount. It's common for engineers to get out in the field with customers, dealers, and service personnel. It's very dangerous for engineers and designers to be barricaded in engineering. There is no substitute for a dose of reality - and, when you make recreational products, the ultimate reality is the customer's experience. I can't say we always get everything right - and sometimes we've gotten things colossally wrong - but we do try very hard to make the customer experience the best in the world.
Interesting to hear that the effort was productive. I think half the battle is just to be conscious of what customers need. I used to travel a great deal in the 1990s, which meant using a lot of rental cars. One thing that came clear was that Japanese cars were more comfortable. Nothing in the driver's compartment seemed to get in my way. With most American cars, I felt like I was elbows and knees, bumping into everything as I got in and out of the car. With the Japanese cars, everything seemed to be in the right place, easy to reach.
I always suspected that Japanese designers were paying more attention to the interaction between the driver and the compartment.
Rob: The observations definitey led to a design that wouldn't have otherwise happened. Their choice of capacitive touch, for example, was based on the fact that some users had problems with other types of screens. Also, the design uses only four physical (non-software) buttons, as opposed to between 14-18 on most such screens. That was done because users complained there were too many buttons. And, yes, they definitely witnessed behaviors different from their own. They said one woman put dozens of sticky notes on her dashboard to remind her of how everything worked. Another driver said she didn't want her e-mail read aloud to her while the kids were in the car, so they incorporated that feature.
Good story, Chuck. I'm curious to know whether these efforts ended up paying off in design efforts that would not have occurred without the customer interaction. I'm also curious about whether the engineers and designers witnessed behavior that varied from what they understood from their own behavior in cars.
Do you know if this practice occurs in other industries? The movie industry famously tests its plots and particularly it endings on audiences.
Key insights in this wonderful story, about how the role of the customer in the design process is able to be coherently articulated in the post-Jobsian world. Unlike the old MS line from the early 1990s -- "We'll ship it when our customers say it's ready" -- the presents the correctly nuanced view that customers are a key PART of the design process but they shoudn't DRIVE the design process.
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