Understanding Customers in the Field

Innovative product developers spend time in the field. They observe, interview, and analyze the actual people who will use their product. At New Balance, Josh Kaplan from the advanced product group flies around the country and goes on runs with different lead users, under­standing the nuances that make their running experience great. Designers at Whirlpool go on service calls to understand the context of where their product is used and how to make it better; that even includes VP Chuck Jones. CEo Eric Close and the engineers at RedZone spend days on site observing how the crews interact with their equipment and each other to improve the experience of sewer repair.

The student team spent much time studying potential users and other key stakeholders. They extensively read current research on exercise, and they conducted many interviews of adults who were formerly out of shape but had begun to exercise. They found that exercise does not have to be relegated to a reserved part of the day, but that small bouts of exercise scattered throughout the day, like the walk from the car to the office, can accumulate and become a bene­ficial, healthy, active routine. They found that lack of time was the number one reason for inactivity, that busy lifestyles left no time for aerobic workouts, that these busy individuals were willing to tackle small goals but refused to commit to large lifestyle changes.

The product team narrowed its focus to men in part because a nar­rower market segment can be more closely matched with design attrib­utes. But there were additional reasons for the increased focus on men. More middle-aged men are overweight than middle-aged women— with 43.25 percent compared to 27.3 percent. Also, men tend to exer­cise to lose weight, whereas women tend to diet. Finally, New Balance serves a larger proportion of adult men than women, so a focus on men fits well with current company strengths. Men who had stopped exer­cising may have previously been the “no pain, no gain” type, but they had too long been accustomed to comfort to have affinity for high – performance athletics. These research findings revealed that attributes of a product solution would aid a comfortable transition to exercise from an inactive lifestyle, fitting into current life patterns to the great­est extent possible while motivating the user toward more activity. One scenario that they developed read as follows:

Ted Franklin recently lost his father to a heart attack. He is 44 years old, 5 ft, 10 in, weighing 220 lbs. Although his wife and two kids have been harping on him to lose weight, it took the scare of his father’s death to make Ted realize that he, too, will have serious health problems if he doesn’t start losing his sedentary lifestyle. He was never the kind to use exercise clubs, and there was no way he was about to sweat in front of those buff kids. Yet he needed some type of moti­vation to get himself moving again, to keep himself going.

Phase III: Conceptualizing the Product Opportunity

Bob would use a “smart insole” that could record his steps and then use a device like a watch or key fob that would more subtly give him feedback on how many steps he has taken all day, not just during formal exercise.

Next comes the more concrete part of product development, the part that takes the insights gained so far as a basis for generating actual concepts, attributes that can be built into actual products or services. At the beginning of this phase, the team has only a vague idea of what the product will accomplish; it has no idea of specifics. For instance, the team knew that walking 10,000 steps a day was a nonthreatening approach to exercise that could be achieved in smaller increments throughout the day. They wanted to reinforce the benefits of this “bite-sized” exercise, but they recognized that many different prod­ucts could achieve such goals. By the end of the phase, the team has fleshed out the concept and has even made early prototypes of it. In between, the team considered many different ideas: indicators on the shoe that change color, a wristband or watch pedometer device, a “shoe garage” that downloads information from the shoe, and a mod­ular shoe system in which worn shoe parts could be individually replaced.

innovation comes from staying true to the value proposition, and product attributes are determined through the research. The approach is iterative in that multiple concepts are considered, refined, and tested, and then the process begins again, with each iter­ation becoming more focused as more is learned about the product. All aspects of the product—its form, function, and market reach—are considered and integrated into a single concept. The product’s emo­tional potential is realized, and the brand identity is developed. The process is visual in that all ideas are sketched or mapped out to pro­vide a common representation among the product development team. The conceptualization process is energetic and exciting. At the same time, it is frustrating and grueling, because every attribute iden­tified through research must be translated into a feature that per­forms as an integral part of the product.

The team looked at the dilemma of how to lose weight and become active, a dilemma for Bob and Ted. After discussing the mer­its and features of more than 50 concepts, the team worked on the idea of a smart insole, one that would track and record exercise throughout the day. The insole would be plush and comfortable, one that would ease the man toward activity. it would have embedded technology to count steps throughout the day, recording and report­ing walking totals so that users can track progress toward daily goals. insoles would fit in regular shoes, accompanying the men in their existing routines, encouraging them to be ever more active in the course of the regular day. The exercise totals could be transmitted to a key fob, an item that men already carry with them. The insole and key fob are discreet objects, not overt advertisements that show the user to be in need of healthful activity. Finally, New Balance already makes insoles, and the technology of feet and exercise is well within the boundaries of the New Balance brand.

Phase IV: Realizing the Product Opportunity

The technology exists to make an appropriate-priced shoe insert with a stylish key fob that Bob could use to read and record his progress. We know how to price it, design it, and manufacture it. We have a plan to package it and present it in stores with a roll-out strategy and a forecast for sales and profit for the next three years. Bob is happy to be getting into shape. New Balance has a new line of products for a new market for overweight men that will extend the brand and keep the idea of performance and fit. This is a market that has tremendous growth (no pun intended).

At the end of this phase, the concept is detailed to the point that the company can decide whether to move the product to production. This is represented in several ways. A complete and accurate visual model is developed through prototypes, computer modeling, and sketching. The technology is shown to be effective through mathe­matical and computer analysis and through a working, functional pro­totype. A business plan that includes market introduction and finan­cials argues the business case. Finally, a manufacturing plan dictates how the product will be produced. Even in this phase, the basis for success lies in the eyes of the stakeholders. very often, this phase can be compromised by a premature commitment to the product, a seductive feeling that the product will be a success, where internal groups rush to judgment without gathering or properly assessing cus­tomer feedback.

In this phase, each feature of the concept is detailed individually and as part of the overall product assembly. The cost and manufac­ture are balanced with the experience of using the product. So the team must work together in an integrated manner to combine the technology and features into a form that not only delivers the tech­nology, but also provides a rich experience of interaction and enjoy­ment. The product must look as good as it works. It must not only be useful, it must be easy to use. It must naturally fit into its environ­ment of use as well as make that environment function better.

The team designed an insole that functions like any other insole that New Balance makes. But hidden in the heel is a radio frequency – enabled (RF) pressure switch, combined with a microcontroller, that registers each footstep taken by the wearer and enters this data into its memory. This memory is contained within a microcontroller unit, which keeps track of the pressure sensor’s input state and stores the daily number of steps for retrieval by a key fob monitoring unit. The number of daily steps taken by the insole is uploaded to the fob, which itself was carefully crafted to be visually appealing as well as discreet. Every insole that the user has in each pair of shoes can be pro­grammed into the same key fob. This device, then, stores the user’s total daily footsteps and displays this number to the user, along with other calculated quantities, possibly including mileage, calories burned, or percentage of a goal achieved. This product also includes in its display a graphic representation of the user’s progress toward a daily goal. The technology is inexpensive to produce and will not need replacement, because it outlasts the insole in which it resides.

The insole design was prototyped to prove that it worked, ana­lyzed to prove that it would work as promised, and visualized to show what a production version would look like. In sum, it worked, it worked well, it was very well received by the target market in focus groups, and it was ready for patenting. It maximized style and tech­nology and was clearly considered an innovation within its product field. The team did not invent new technology; they invented a new use of the technology and an emotional way to deliver it.

New Balance submitted a provisional patent on this concept, along with five other equally innovative and engaging product concepts that came from teams in the same Integrated Product Development class. New Balance will analyze the business case of each to decide whether to invest in developing the prototypes into manufactured products. The further investment will happen from within, organically growing the company with new market introductions.

As a partnership between the company and university, everyone got a significant return on investment. New Balance received a num­ber of product concepts and details that it could develop into patent­ed products. It also acquired six case studies on the innovation process to help solidify this approach internally throughout the com­pany. The students were given a strong, state-of-the-art process in innovation to take with them into industry, and the faculty had addi­tional examples to demonstrate the process of innovation.

The process laid out in this chapter creates a product that is bet­ter positioned for lean manufacture or other programs that assure quality of manufacture. The most critical aspect of quality is the abil­ity to approach launch with complete control and confidence. Any product changes made in the later phases of product development are extremely costly and can affect the ability to deliver quality man­ufacturing and craftsmanship. By resolving the major issues of a prod­uct in the fuzzy front end, the downstream process can more effec­tively focus on manufacturing and launch.

Today’s innovative companies follow a process such as the one described in this chapter to develop new product concepts through the fuzzy front end. These early phases set up the platform for inno­vation. But these early phases are, for many, the most difficult to nav­igate. The uncertainty and incomplete information from which deci­sions must be made are uncomfortable for the traditional breed of engineer and marketer. Yet it is the ability to understand the com­plete picture of what that information tells you that enables innova­tion and successful new product development to take place. The tools in this chapter and book are best practices that companies deploy; they are consistent strategies for innovation from within. For that is the approach of the Edith Harmons and Josh Kaplans at New Balance and the Chuck Joneses, Dee Kapurs, and all the others dis­cussed in this book as the new breed of innovator.

Creating a Blanket of IP to Protect Your Brand from the

Understanding Customers in the Field

Innovation is as much about design patent protection and trade dress as it is about utility. Realizing early that your best defense is a total intellectual property (IP) offense allows you to keep your brand iden­tity as protected as your technology R&D. Patents are for fixed periods, but trade dress, like a diamond, is forever.

Des Moines, IA. Susan and Steve finally got the dog that Steve had wanted. They had been married six years and had two kids, both final­ly out of diapers, which was Susan’s requirement before they got the pet. For all of Susan’s efforts to find a dog that would not shed, when they finally got the mutt from the shelter, it became a crapshoot. Although Susan decided the dog really was cute, it shed like—well, a dog. Susan hated to clean, and Steve was even worse (“Too much to do!”). The twice-weekly cleaning service was fine B. C. (before canine), but A. D. (after dog) the house, especially the floors, seemed to be a constant mess.

In comes Swiffer, that wonderful revolution in floor cleaning from Procter & Gamble (P&G) that has changed the practice and expectations of floor cleaning. Swiffer is not only a trademarked prod­uct name, but like Xerox the word has become a verb: “Time to Swiffer the floor.” (Not that P&G should like its becoming a verb, but more on that later.) The old drudgery of sweeping the floor is replaced by the easy-to-use dry mop with replaceable cleaning cloths. The cloths use static electricity to grab hold of dirt, dust, and dog hair as the cleaning head sweeps across the floor. The Swiffer mop itself is easy to control and get under those hard-to-reach places with the full pivot action on the head. The cloth makes the process easy with both its minimal resistance as it is pushed and its ability to grab dirt just by moving over the floor. When the cloth is dirty, it is easily pulled off, thrown away, and replaced with a simple motion.

For Susan and every working mom, the Swiffer experience fits right into the trend of cleaning quickly and easily on demand. Rather than making floor sweeping a major ordeal, the Swiffer can freshen up any area of the floor quickly. It is not just for working moms, but dads and kids as well. The Swiffer is so simple that kids can be brought into the cleaning process.

Susan was so impressed with the Swiffer that she bought the com­panion WetJet, a member of the Swiffer product family that has a con­tainer of cleaning fluid that can be squirted on the floor in front of the cleaning cloth for a wet-mop action. The WetJet has done for the mop what Swiffer has done for the broom—replaced it! Instead of grungy mops and dirty buckets of water, the WetJet is clean and self-con­tained, and only the cloth needs to be thrown away when dirty.

Updated: October 8, 2015 — 4:04 pm