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.
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.
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.
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.
I was at a BMW dealer trying to explain to a customer who used post-it notes on her dash that the note covered an important warning indicator regarding water temperture. The radio/CD player volume level masked the audible indication of an over-temperture situation. The customer was then out BIG bucks for the ensuing repair. Seems the car manufacturers should also have yet another warning for smart people.
That is funny in a sad kinda way, bdzin, but spotlights something that us technically aware types often fail to consider. Namely, the vast majority of people don't know or care about a lot of the warning, safety, and preventative stuff that's built into vehicles. Well, maybe "don't care" is unfair. Not attuned to is a better way of putting it. Also, they don't get why us types are horrified at this. A recent example from my own experience, though only very loosely related, is that I was trying to explain to my teenaged son why it wasn't a good idea that, when he had refilled his flat bicycle tire, he ended up with the tire valve cocked sideways at a 30-degree angle. He didn't understand why I thought that was sub-optimum.
Alex, I'm not sure people don't care about the warning, safety, and preventive stuff built into vehicles, I think it's more that the vast majority don't want to know all the particulars. They make an assumption that given the big bucks they are shelling out for modern vehicles, that under the covers there is plenty of hidden technology that will ensure their safety when driving. It's more of a given compared with those infotainment and performance features that can get the average lay person more excited and engaged with their car.
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.
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.
It's also worth mentioning that design engineers say they need to be careful in the kind of information they take from consumers. Consumers often don't know what they want and several designers told us they worry about customers "giving answers that they think we want to hear." Cadillac's engineers and designers made a point of sitting in the back seat and quitely watching, rather than asking questions.
What The Cadillac design team did was excellent Market research, and is exemplary of what every new product development effort should tackle, but seldom does.The “end-users” of the product will intuitively know what works for them, and will always have suggestions like; “It would be great if you had a gizmo that could ….. “.These types of suggestions are considered “need-based” and not necessarily innovation solutions; rather just problem statements.Our job as the design (and market-research) teams is to embrace those needs and then invent the innovation solutions.What mature design engineers and seasoned market research professionals need to look past, are the silly comments made by the focus-group-participants.For example, during one long-past focus study group I managed before the commercial release of Smart-Phones (circa 2002) we provided one real working smartphone prototype, plus 3 other non-working balsa-wood industrial design models offering various form-factor solutions.Without exception, every group participant commented on how much more desirable the light-weight design models were, over the actual working prototype.Well, duh.But the message was clear. The all liked “lighter” over the actual clunky working prototype.If nothing else, it pointed the design efforts of the subsequent years into more exotic and lighter materials.All good inputs.All good things.
@JimT: The actual interpretation of what users are saying about what they actually want and need in a product is the gold standard, as you well point out, Jim. I think that's the best practice that really differentiates the Cadillac Design Research Team and the smart phone example you cited. It's a great skill to be able to translate those subtle nuances around behavior and what wasn't said into tangible product requirements and innovations that resonate as opposed to being sidetracked by the obvious wish-lists and complaints that customers actively verbalize.
This article reminds me of Tom in Officespace whose main function was to give information from the customers to the engineers. The first step the efficiency consultants did was to remove this position. Direct communication between customers and engineers is very important and can really help with product sales.
I still find it amazing to see message boards full of complaints for a single issue over multiple model years. Obviously, these complaints were made and no one took heed of the problems.
Tim's comment about unfixed issues resonates, and also raises the question about whether the Twitter monitoring that's been adopted by many vendors as a customer service tool, is having any sort of impact. Anecdotally (from my personal experience), it has potential. My Time-Warner Cable went out a few months ago. Wasn't getting any love on the customer-service phone, so I did a tweet. Boy was I shocked when I got a response within 5 minutes from the company's social-media-monitoring person. And he followed up with me twice! It didn't actually expedite the fix, but it made me feel better!
I think the social media streams can be a valuable source of customer intel and feedback and can go a long way in fostering some feel-good, even if not problem resolution, as Alex well notes. To some degree, monitoring these same streams for good ideas that can serve as starting points for design innovations is also a form of crowdsourcing and can help the cause of building better products. On the cautionary side, customers don't always know what they want or what they might want. So the real challenge lies with digging through these streams to find the nuggets of insights that can develop into a real idea.That's a whole lot of legwork.
Focus groups with actual design engineers? Sounds like a great idea. I have been both a participant in early technology focus groups and managed a couple of technology focus groups. The two things I saw missing fairly consistently were first, quality of the participants, aka customers, and their ability to articulate their likes, dislikes, and needs, and second, the presence of marketing people alone, and the absence of engineers.
One way not mentioned yet, that I can recall, is asking customers about what they don't like in a product. Of course this means that there must be product in the customers hands already. The "focus group" method is not even close, since it is primarily a tool used by marketing weasels to steer things around to match their own point of view.
In my particular line of business it has always been vital to know just exactly what my customers needed, because all sales were based on the product solving some problem for the customer. Occasionally it wound up that the customer was asking for something that would not solve their problem, although they were assuming that it would. Those times usually wound up building customer confidence when the final product solved their problem. OF course, the difference there is that I could be close to my customers, not separated by multiple distribution levels. Also, they were closely associated with their processes that they usually had a rational understanding when we discussed the product solutions.
Auto companies seem to not always be aware that some folks keep a vehicle for more than six months, and that product defficiencies that could be accptable in a one-day rental would be deal breakers when attemting to sell a product that will be held for several years. My guess is that all of the automakers decided to make this change at the same time so that they could point out that "everybody does it that way now."
To me and my family vacations are precious times, careflly planned and generally both restful and memorable. So when I read the title of this article my first tought was, "Oh no. Now someone is trying to make me feel guilty for wanting some downtime away from work." That ain't gonna happen.
But to get first hand customer feedback in unguarded moments is a great idea. I often wonder how opinion polls would vary if the participants were unaware of the fact that they were participating in an opinion poll. That is what is being constructed here. The methodology described is unadaptable to my field, so I can easily tell everyone else to go for it, knowing I will never have to. However, we do get customer feedback and it is usually reflected in repeat business or lack of the same.
The other angle we're not factoring in is what can loosely be called the rise time of the product development cycle. So for example, with automakers, they have to be very careful about what customer comments they factor into their designs, because they (the automakers) have lengthy and costly development cycles. More importantly, they can't easily change stuff at the end once the product is out in the marketplace if the idea/implementation turns out to be a bad one. At the other end of the spectrum are PC and smartphone makers, which have 6-month product lifecycles and are thus free to experiment. Which kind of begs they question, why don't they experiment more than they actually do (which is not much)?
That's an intriguing question, Alex. Having spent some time on the dark side, aka marketing, I believer the answer lies there, instead of in the world of design. It's a combination of time to market and unit cost/profit margin. The lower the unit cost of the product--consumer electronics relatively low, cars relatively high--the higher the profit margin must be, so the less time is spent on anything not considered essential. In a separate track, the shorter the time to market, the same thing goes. Combined, you get lots of consumer electronics that some of us feel should have been designed a lot better.
Alex: In answer to your question about why engineers in consumer electronics don't experiment more, I can only assume it's because someone upstairs sees it as a mater of money. Cadillac engineers said that GM executives were appalled when they heard what they were doing. Their concern was cost. A commonly-held management viewpoint is that engineers need to keep their productivity up, which can only be accomplished by keeping their heads down.
As one who also values my vacations, Tool_maker, I thought you might want to know that the Cadillac engineers vacationed with families for hours, not days and nights. Even in this era -- luckily -- there are limits to what engineers can be expected to do.
Steve jobs has shown the successful way and he did not much care about customer's inputs to design. What matter is the engineering sense to think and outthink customer in turn to surprse the him. If the engineer waited for the customer to help then disruptive innovations would not have taken place. What we need is Jules verne engineers. But yes design engineer must think for customers ...!
The difference, though, is the industry. In the later years, Jobs had name recognition, a big following, and money. If his disruptive design (such as iPod) failed, so be it. In the early years, Jobs was all about the risk and Apple could very well have turned into a company nobody would even know any more. In this case, it's an existing auto company that doesn't have that level of risk tolerance, so they need to aim more at what the customers actually do want.
(Unless, of course, they just put the new designs into the "package" that includes the engine and tire....)
I do agree with you to some extent. Even though industries are different there are many aspects. Vacationing with customers will not work in the case of a medical device. In this case may be we have to work with the customer. But yes your comment are really thought provoking .
At this year's MD&M West show, lots of material suppliers are talking about new formulations for wearables and things that stick to the skin, whether it's adhesives, wound dressings, skin patches and other drug delivery devices, or medical electronics.
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