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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