It is very important to watch and understand how your customers use your products. One of the best ways is to visit your customers in their environment to watch and interview them. There are quite a few benefits. One is that you will be able to observe the product usability in real life. What you and your designers thought may not match actual user experience. For example, while Microsoft Windows is primarily a mouse and pop-up windows dialog boxes interface, some users prefer to use the Tab and Enter keys for faster operation in software. Highly touted and costly features in software and hardware may also be "so what" in a customer's real world - allowing for some design cost cutting and support reduction without affecting customer loyalty and satisfaction. You also find that users may be having an incorrect and lowered impression of your product due to not knowing the full feature set. This is understandable since many customers may not have been fully trained, do not have the time to learn everything, may not have known enough to ask the pertinent questions during initial training, or just simply assume that the desired function is missing. Being with the customer in this follow-up visit allows you to learn and correct such false assumptions and to “delight” the user; you also learn how to improve your product or training to prevent this was occurring. (You also don't want this misconception to brew into customer dissatisfaction and affect future sales and word of mouth.)
In terms of innovation, I’ve observed that users will modify your product (if possible) to suit their particular needs. Some of their modifications have been very creative and brilliant. You can get some great concepts and ideas to bring back to your design team. Innovation does not have to start from you, Marketing, or Engineering alone. In fact, there's a whole area of study on this by Professor Erc Von Hippel called "User Innovation". An example is soldiers mounting machine guns on cargo planes in Vietnam out of their own ingenuity, which led to flying gunships and attack helicopters. You will also see and learn where you product and its usage fits in the total universe of the customer. Learn the user’s workflow, his/her bottlenecks, and challenges. Remember: people don’t buy products for features; they buy products to solve a problem that they have.
A very important side benefit is that customers usually very much appreciate that you are there in a non-selling situation mainly to learn about their situation, make their lives better, and stand behind your products and them. You also get to know them on a personal level and develop references. There is nothing better than knowing and treating your customers as friends. All things being equal, people will prefer to do business with someone whom they like.
Note: Eric von Hippel is an amazing person who truly beieves in open and democratic innovation, including free and open source software (FOSS). He has a very informative website where his papers and books can be downloaded for free! The man walks the walk.
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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