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Doesn't anyone ever try these things?

I wrote recently on customer service.  Another aspect of treating customers well is to give them products that work well and work as expected.  As a "product guy" in several start-ups, I spent lots of time trying to figure out what customers really want and would want from a new product.

Many times, users can't describe exactly how they want a product to work and exactly what problem they need a product to solve.  You can interview them, watch them, run focus groups, and do lots of research.  But, watching doesn't always give you what they want.  Sometimes, a new product is like pornography -- you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it.

Marketeers need to get inside a customer's head.  They need to learn to think like a customer and to understand the world the customer lives in.  This requires first hand experience, not second or third hand.  The worst thing is "zero" hand -- having a product designer do something because they can, because they think it is cool, or because it makes sense to them.

I recently helped my parents set up a digital photo frame.  It should have been an easy experience.  This is a limited function product, has software running on a PC where it should be simple to make a nice interface, and is aimed at a mass market.  Instead, the software was clunky, there was no tutorial, the documentation was sketchy and incomplete.  It wasn't obvious for me how to use this thing.  You can imagine how frustrated the average user gets.  Doesn't this lead to a lot of support calls that ruin the profitability of these products?  Didn't they actually try to use this thing first?

There is an article in today's Boston Globe on how much a company should spend on marketing vs. engineering.  Although interesting, I think that this article misses the point.  You can't solve these problems with money.  I actually think that most companies, particularly small companies, should spend more on engineering than on marketing and product management.  However, every company and product needs one or two visionaries who really get inside the customer's head and understand how the product will be used.  These couple of people can have a huge impact on a product design and can influence the work of a whole engineering team.  They are worth a lot if they are good.

Apple particularly does a great job with this.  The iPod revolutionized digital musice by creating an easy end-to-end customer experience.  No other vendor had done this.  Perhaps they will do the same thing with the iPhone, but I am skeptical.  They are still working with one of the carriers (Cingular), and they have rarely made complicated products simple.  I recently bought a Samsung Blackjack.  The actual device is great, but it is running Windows Mobile.  Windows Mobile has tons of capability and is almost easy.  But, there are little quirks that aren't documented, and synching it with some music on your PC is downright unintuitive.  Didn't anyone try this out?  What is their image of a user if they thought that this was the right way for the product to work?  I don't think that hiring even more marketeers would solve the problem.


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