Customer Centered Design … Why is it SO Hard?

7 Nov 2011

I woke up this AM thinking about consumer value. Why is it that so few existing companies can deliver disruptive consumer value propositions? Execute innovation? It seems as if big companies are more interested in imitating what their competitors are doing … as opposed to focusing on customer (to deliver value). Steve Jobs was one of the few big business CEOs that focused on Customer. He knew that creating a fantastic customer experience was essential in anything to be “sold” to consumers, whether that was Apple or Pixar . Everything flowed from a consumer DESIGN and experience which then evolved to product and subsequently to engineering. Apple was fanatical about customer experience and customer centered design, obviously quality (hardware and software) and connected services were also essential in driving the experience to establish behavior.  How many products in the market start with customer centered design? How many of your product heads know their customers and how they differ by segment?  My time at Gartner and Oracle led me to a few hypotheses on software products:

  • Every Software product usually starts with a customer in mind… but customer focus typically fades fast as other objectives (financial, competitive, alliances, big “special” customers, timeline: execution on “something”…) move the product off of the initial customer centered goal.
  • Delivering any consumer value proposition requires either a killer value proposition or a killer distribution channel.  Consumer adoption is “unpredictable” at best…  be highly skeptical of any initial success (acquiring early adopters of a product) never resembles the broader launch when the product goes mainstream.
  • Small companies (leading delivery of a visionary consumer service) require alliance partners… Alliance partners require financial incentives that quickly erode the original value proposition. “when you dance with an 800lb Gorilla, you can expect to have your toes stepped on”. Give equity and it biases your board (focus on their problems/customers), give cash and it kills the consumer or the distribution channel. Equity is better.. but structure in a way you can take them out.
  • New Software products within large companies (ie MSFT, SAP, Oracle) are either poorly integrated into the core, or not integrated at all.  Product teams can spend over 50% of resources focusing only on internal integration… which further distracts from original  customer centered design. There is usually a case for 2 product teams here.. one focused externally on customer and market, they other focused internally on integration requirements.
  • Customer testing and trial is a 9 month+ process… no exceptions. Few companies go out of their way to solicit negative customer feedback on a new product. They are much more concerned about “secrecy”…  Companies may have justification for short-circuiting (Example: “what are we supposed to do with the engineering team while we wait for feedback”) usually come back to haunt as products in market are much more difficult to change AND effect consumer perception/adoption.  Cloud based services are no exception , “lets throw our product out there and see what happens, we will fix bugs later” is not a great business plan. This model makes your early adopters unpaid quality assurance participants..
  • Few companies can survive by tackling a niche in the consumer market. There are only 3 markets (US, EU, China) where a 10% market share equates to a sustainable business
  • Large companies may not be able to “win” in delivering a new value proposition, but they can muck it up for everyone else. Their game plan is one of “control” over value. They leverage their existing network, infrastructure, products, communication and market power to influence potential customers.
  • Consumer visionaries and innovators play a distant second to executives driving financial performance. There are exceptions. For example, Google is also a fantastic innovator, a result of having the best minds working round the clock with pressure to do something great.. not to drive a revenue target.

Story.. my lessons

My lessons learned on customer centered design are many… After Oracle I went back to my old team at Wachovia (which had just bought First Union) our team had launched the world’s first major online bank in 1995 (Cyberbanking).. I was fortunate to return to oversee the complete remaking of our online and payment services infrastructure… a $200M project (2002). As an engineer.. I have many faults..  among them thinking that I know what the customer wants without ever talking to them… We had 2 excellent execs at Wachovia that completely changed the way I thought about customer centered design.  We brought customers into the product design process at every stage.. hand drawn screen mock ups.. asking them obvious questions… Why do you do this? what are you looking for? When do you typically do this? What does this mean to you? Jason Ward’s amazing team took this customer feedback and analyzed it to prioritize product design changes.  When I started at Wachovia…. we had no facilities or process for including customer feedback, it was the call center’s problem to deal with. After development was complete, we did extended “dog fooding” with employees and customers.. then brought that feedback into refine final release. We also communicated with ALL customers.. why are we upgrading? what will be changing? We explained what things will look like. 3 months before it happened (believe it or not customers don’t like surprises in their bank).

What happened next was something that still amazes me.. During upgrade customer call volume went DOWN.. we transitioned customers from one system to another… completely changed screen flows … and they did not call to ask questions, they did not call to complain..  We had budgeted for extra call center staff.. and we didn’t have anything for them to do..  What was more amazing is that our customer satisfaction went up… DURING the transition to the new system. This is unheard of..

I have now learned that I don’t know what the customer wants or needs.. and the direct customer interaction is VERY beneficial to all involved.. from product to engineering to the call center. Communicating to the customer (if done correctly) is a great thing.. great customers love you and they want to know what you are working on.. find ways to share it with them. If customers perceive they are getting value they want to HELP you. It is imperative to build facilities to get this feedback.  In Wachovia there was only 2 regular standing meetings that the CEO would attend… financial and customer listening.  Although Wachovia failed on many other grounds.. it taught me the importance of keeping eyes on the customer and ensuring I received the RAW customer data. My priorities became my teams priorities.

Sorry to ramble… I have quite a few peers and former employees read this. Wells Fargo just completed the last migration off of our $200M Wachovia platform. The migration was very well done.. but quite frankly I miss what we had. WFC’s online banking is too clumsy.. too much information.. The difference between using an iPhone and flying the space shuttle (photo below). … although I miss that too.

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One thought on “Customer Centered Design … Why is it SO Hard?

  1. I agree with the points raised in your article Tom. Companies can sometimes be very short sighted in the effort to cut corners or get something to market in a rush just because their competitor has beaten them to it. The excuses they often make is that customer centred design takes too long, is too expensive or they believe they can always go back and fix it once it’s launched. However what they forget is that customers may not be as forgiving about the poorly designed product or service. I believe to be the first is not necessarily the best – it’s more important to great even if you’re late.

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