Product Development with the Future in Mind

By Todd Board

There are times when it actually seems as if the Technology industry (loosely and broadly defined) has landed on a grand, unified theory of consumer technology…and that this theory reads something like “Primate like shiny, moving object.”

Seriously – even us to us Tech marketer types, with a clearly vested interest in seeing markets embrace the new/more/better – doesn’t it start to feel inevitable that increasing profusion is leading to increasing confusion? And for the researchers in the house, aren’t we in the pattern detection business?...Assuming so, what pattern might we be detecting here?

The Jan/Feb issue of The Conference Board Review digs into “Making things simple – the marketing of complexity.” In the Harvard Business Review in Fall 2006, academic Roland Rust decries the relentless trend toward “feature fatigue,” and uses appropriately academic packaging for what should be abidingly common-sense observations (e.g., look at the product from the user perspective, take a longer view than just this sale). Likewise, in our own practice, we routinely talk about the “feature firehose” problem with Tech sector clients, and see rueful nods of recognition.

So let’s get to the nub of it – though the specifics will vary by individual, we all experience this “feature firehose” in our consumer lives – why don’t we work harder to bring that recognition into how we market to other consumers? If nothing else, a pragmatic focus on strategic contrarianism would lead us to say that when most Tech marketers seem to be gleefully overwhelming consumers with one more widget combo, there’s probably a hole in the market for the Just Enough Option. The Blackberry, Motorola’s RAZR, and the various flavors of iPod all represent device makers working hard to straddle the fine line between Just Enough (without leaving money on the table), and Too Much (both in terms of complexity, and excessive overlap with existing devices).

As reported previously, we surveyed U.S. consumers before the holiday season and annual CES extravaganza, about their interest in a range of PC and handheld wireless applications, for web connectivity, communications, and digital content. The topline from this inquiry was that consumer consideration of the various applications was fairly spread across PC- and handheld-based applications, and across connectivity, communications, and content. Different subgroups of respondents tended to have fuzzily distinct combinations of more-interesting features.


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This echoes more robust (and client-proprietary) work we’ve done via disaggregate discrete choice, to “unpack the mental model” of individual consumers. There we’ve seen the power of getting underneath the overall or average market response to device features and combinations, to identify “sweet spot” clusters – naturally occurring consumer segments based on desired feature combinations. Likewise, we definitely see the power of intelligently anticipating likely competitive offerings, to model the potential ricochet effects across multiple brands and feature combinations/offerings.

If we’re honest about it, the most precious American values (quickly spreading and morphing to other parts of global consumer culture) are freedom….and convenience. There’s an inherent tension in that combination, which we see play out in our marketplace, our politics, and our daily lives. We want freedom….but not overwhelm in decision-making. We want convenience…but (hopefully) not the convenience of having our hard decisions in effect made for us. To borrow a phrase from the healthcare arena, ultimately most of us want some flavor of “managed choice.”

So what? So we Tech marketers and researchers need to continue to hone and simplify the development and presentation of our offerings. While we may see the chaotic front end of the “feature firehose” and know we could pack in practically infinite features on the next widget – most consumers want a focused menu of intelligently developed menu items, oriented around “sweet spot” combinations, such that almost everyone can find one menu offering they understand and will enjoy learning and using. For the geeks in the crowd you can always have the drill-down detail and steroid-infused feature set – but most of us consumers just aren’t that enthralled – we just want what we want, and we don’t want to pay for something we don’t value (and that may just get in the way).

Most established Tech devices work well enough, fast enough, to meet most consumer demands. It’s too easy for many consumers to dismiss a given new device or product as not worth the hassle of researching, comparing and learning – or beyond their current needs. Despite (and perhaps also because of) the continued, novel advances in the broad Tech space, it’s a very crowded ecology out there. When a new species wants to claim its place in a biome, it needs to work toward a “just right” fit that meets underserved needs, without overreaching or overlapping too much with existing species. A too-big footprint can bring unwanted burdens, complexities – and potentially predator/competitor response.

If we want our consumers to not only buy our product, but also value and enjoy it, provide positive word-of-mouth, and develop a growing affinity for our brand, let’s treat new products like a new species in a crowded ecology. They need to find their right function and footprint, taking into account both current species (competitors, customers), and also a sense of what the future may bring (i.e., new competitive offerings, future customer preferences based on experience with current purchases). Let’s re-commit to developing today’s products with all those tomorrows in mind.

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When will Digital Video become a reality in the living room?

By Adam Wright

We know this much about Americans: we love watching television. So why, then, is it that digital video seems to be taking forever to really take hold? It seems as if the industry is taking baby steps in adding content, devices and services to stream and download on the Internet, albeit the recent news of Google's acquisition of YouTube should only add fuel to the fire in driving awareness and trial of online video content among the masses.

Our own research, from the MOTION tracking study on the digital video category, shows that only 3% of American adults have ever downloaded a full-length movie, while just 5% have ever downloaded a television show. So, despite the fanfare, the real question is: When will digital video content and services become a reality for the masses? One answer goes something like this: Whenever it becomes easy for us to view this content on our TVs.

This ubiquitous household appliance, sometimes referred to as the ’10-foot’ experience, is what propelled the DVD player to become the fastest growing consumer technology in history. And despite the excitement building around the upside of the digital video market in the future, based on a recent data from MOTION, most consumers don’t expect to change their current viewing habits much in the near future.

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So, given the realities of traditional video consumption, it seems clear that the lynchpin for growth in the online video market – at least for traditional video content such as television shows and movies – lies in delivering this content to the TV. However, it is relatively impossible for the average consumer – you and me -- to view a television program and full-length movie they have downloaded from the Internet on their TV sets. This ‘digital divide’ will likely constrain online video distribution until a consumer-friendly solution bridges the PC with the TV in the living room.

Strides are being made to bridge this gap. For example, CinemaNow recently launched the first legal movie-download service that lets its buyers burn Hollywood films onto blank DVD. Never mind that the burn-to-DVD service doesn’t include first-run films, but rather is offered for only 100 or so older titles. But hey, it’s a start.

This allows someone to catalog their downloads on their PC, while giving them the option to view these downloads on their preferred user interface – their TVs – without any real huge technoblabble to comprehend or flaming hoops to jump through in set-up. The convenience of this service is certainly in question, but this is the certainly in-line with what needs to happen in this industry for it to break through to the masses and fully transform consumers’ living rooms into a true ‘digital den.’

An alternate route to easier TV access of digital video content may lie in that handy MP3 player so many of us own and love. Because of its established device/service linkage, the iPod/iTunes franchise certainly seems to have a potential head start, particularly given emerging details on next-generation iPods and iTunes, and the code-named ‘iTV’ device intended to link iTunes content to the TV. While many of us may not want to enrich optometrists by watching lots of made-for-the-big screen video on tiny portables, they do offer a powerful way to store and move content around, and offer teaser previews of content along the way. Certainly the burgeoning iPod accessory market that’s generating opportunity for firms like Bose could also expand to include next-gen, USB-enabled video displays.

So, if you’re shopping for new CE devices this holiday season – don’t buy one without a USB port, and in the meantime you can find $20 iPod connector cords for most current TVs. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the oncoming parade of higher-capacity portable media and storage devices, to support this ramped-up need for storage in the digital video era. If consumers agree that next-gen iTunes movies offer ‘near-DVD quality,’ and if the ‘iTV’ launch in early 2007 delivers an experience as seamless as iPod consumers expect, that also should help move digital video closer to potential breakout to the mainstream.

Related Reading: Visit the Technology and Communication Knowledge Center