How to Improve Your Products: The Value of Small Things

by Dan Blank on March 8, 2010

Regardless of the brand you work for or your role within it, you likely don’t have a lot of resources at the moment. Perhaps you are doing the work of three people, maybe budgets are frozen, perhaps your business is in transition.

And yet, you and your colleagues are filled with ideas on how to make your products better and improve the lives of those in your market.

Oftentimes people feel that to better serve their customers requires deep resources and perhaps a project plan for the creation of new systems. But you don’t, at least not for certain types of innovative changes.

If you are "exploring a new paradigm" or "unlocking value," then chances are, you might be approaching innovation the wrong way, missing the real opportunities to put smiles on the faces of those in your market.

The best innovations often come from the lowest levels of the org chart, can be done easily and immediately, and have (positive) measurable affects on the lives of your customers and your own business.

Think about how often a media brand spends a ton of resources on a "redesign" that doesn’t change a single thing about how they serve or delight their customers. (speaking of which, Fortune just redesigned.)

Today I want to chat about the other kind of innovation, the one that you can affect today, by yourself, without much planning or any special skills. The kind that makes the lives of your customers better. That kind.

Focus on Simple Things

How can you improve the lives of your customers and increase the value of your business today? Here’s a few ways:

  • Listen
    This is the most powerful tool you have. Don’t rely on a yearly survey, don’t wait until you bump into people at a big conference. Pick up the phone and call people. Send an email, a Tweet, or get up and go to where your customers work.

    Why? Because in a survey or on the floor of a tradeshow, it is in everyone’s best interests to be polite, to say how much they love you, to gloss over the details of their own behaviors and issues.

    Recently, I have become a huge fan of Mixergy.com, a website where one entrepreneur interviews others who have succeeded or failed in starting a business. What makes these interviews unusual is how detailed they are. A guest might give a brief description of a critical juncture in their business, such as the decision to form a partnership. The host, Andrew Warner, will always back up and explore that decision in specific detail.

    In doing so, Andrew discovers things the guest didn’t even realize, and pulls lessons for the audience that would have otherwise been lost.

    How does this relate to you? When you consider ways to better serve your market, are you looking critcally at every step of your process? I have seen plenty of hard-nosed journalists look at reader-surveys and gloss over the details, landing on a simple number such as "Readers prefer us to our competitors 2:1." And they explore it no further, ask no cutting questions about the data, about what this means, or explore ways to improve their product. They would never let someone else get off that easy if they were covering them for an article, yet, they let themselves off that easy.

    Listening is about discovering, and you find the most valuable things in the most unusual places. It’s not about validating what you already know.

    How does listening benefit your customers? First, don’t undervalue how much your customers appreciate you even asking their opinion. Caring in this manner inherently changes your relationship, and opens up new opportunities. Think about your entire educational experience – how did you feel about teachers who cared enough to ask about you, and those who didn’t?

    Be that person. The one who cares enough to ask.

    The second benefit of listening is that the other person might actually tell you something surprising. Don’t settle for expected and comforting answers. Find out the problems your customers face, even the ones they aren’t aware of.

  • Observe
    What people do and what they say are often two different things. It’s not that people are trying to mislead, it’s just a perception issue in their own minds.

    Find ways to be around actual customers using your products in real situations. This will pose different challenges depending on the industry you cover and your range of products.

  • Answer
    Be available to answer the simple questions. Why is Craig of Craigslist.org still a customer service rep at his own company? Because nothing puts him closer to the real experiences and needs of his actual customers. Everyday, he answers dozens of questions, not only helping others, but helping to make his product more valuable.

    Put yourself in a position to do this. Talk to those who do it.

    Zappos.com integrates customer service into their company culture, and being on a call with them is somewhat amazing. Their reps are empowered to help, empowered to answer, empowered to serve your needs. They are much more likely to offer you a refund or a bonus before you even need to ask about it. It is the complete opposite experience of most other customer service calls, where answers are few, and the overall process is arduous.

  • Be Present
    Simply show up. I know this sounds basic, but it’s amazing how many businesses launch a product that their own employees don’t use. Perhaps its an online forum, or the comments section of a brand’s own articles. If you ask your market to be there, then you need to be there too, not just observing but participating.

    The other week my wife and I went out to Barnes & Noble at 7pm. We had been through a series of snowstorms and both had cabin fever. But it had stopped snowing about 8 hours ago, and the roads had been 100% clear since then.

    When we pulled into the parking lot, we found that there were aisles that they didn’t bother to remove snow from, and there was a thick layer of ice elswhere. After walking carefully up to the door, we found a sign: "Barnes & Noble is closed as of 3pm due to weather."

    It was surprising, especially as I watched many other people park and walk up to the door in the small amount of time I was there. As we pulled away, I saw a family of four with two small kids make their way across the icy parking lot, to be greated by the sign, and then make their way back.

    I was dumbfounded, watching Barnes & Noble NOT be there for their customers. What would the store manager or the company owner think if they just sat their watching people walk over the ice only to be dissappointed. What made it even more interesting is that every light in the store was on, making it a beacon.

    I called the store manager the next day to ask why they decided to close. He told me that it had never opened that day at all, and that it closed at 3pm the previous day, and that the decision was made by the regional manager. So it had been closed for a day and a half, and the decision was made by someone who hadn’t been checking conditions at this particular store. A total failure to be present for their customers.

Yes, complicated systems can evolve from these things, but you would be amazed at the value of the simple acts of listening, of answering, of being there. Don’t offload that opportunity to others.

Think Bottom Up, Not Top Down

Talk to those affected by your product. Those who use it day in and day out. Focus on the people who are lowest on the food chain. Talk to the interns, the junior level coordinators, the receptionist, and those who are often hidden away in cubes, back rooms and are in the trenches.

Here’s the real trick: don’t just send them a survey, take them out to lunch. Buy them coffee. Meet them where they work, have a conversation that lasts more than 25 seconds.

If you make artisan soap, don’t just talk to the store owner who buys your product, talk to the 17 year old behind the counter who sells it, talk to the kid who stocks the shelves, and of course, watch how customers do or don’t interact with your products in the stores, in real-life situations.

The design firm IDEO overhauls brands by doing the unthinkable: going into people’s homes to see how they live their lives, use products and find solutions. It sounds crazy, but it’s critical.

Perhaps everyone is buying your artisanal soap, but no one is using it. Or they are using it differently than you expected. You can’t tell that at the point of purchase, and oftentimes what people say and what they do are two different things.

If you work in business media, the same thing applies. How often are you able to see their audience receive a copy of your publication and how they do (or don’t use it). How often do you participate in usability studies and listening labs to see how your target audience actually uses the web. Are web analytics a core part of your process?

Don’t Assume Anything

Years ago, I attended a session by Creative Good about their concept of Listening Labs. They idea was this:

"Let’s say you own Orbitz.com, the travel website, and you want to see how easy to use your product is."

So, here we are, the "owners" of Orbitz sitting in a room, watching a Creative Good employee interview and observe someone who needs to plan a trip via the web. The most compelling part of the process was that nobody told the person that they were testing Orbitz, and no one set up the computer to that page.

They started with Google, and watched how the person being tested did – or didn’t – get to Orbitz. It was eye-opening to simply see how this person used the internet to book a trip. She was a normal intelligent web savvy person, yet she consistently did things differently than you would have expected.

And everyone in the room simply observed as she was gently guided along with questions such as "do you need a rental car," allowing the person being tested to determine how to address that need.

Creative Good talked about doing this within companies, with senior management present, behind two-way glass. It is not uncommon for the executives to want to get up and guide the person to use their website/product properly. The executive didn’t realize that they can’t guide everyone in the world to act the way he or she wants. The product has to be designed to account for the customer’s actual behavior and actual need, no matter how it diverges from his expectations.

Case studies from groups like IDEO or Creative Good are often fascinating. Products didn’t need to be overhauled, new marketing plans didn’t need to be launched, logos were just fine. It is often a tiny fix, a small change that has a remarkable impact on how people interacted with a certain product or service.

What you often find is that there are simple issues that hinder how people use your product. We’ve all heard the stories of how billions were spent to develop an item such as a bulletproof vest for soldiers, how engineers and high-ranking people were involved, but that in the end, the soldier in the field wasn’t consulted. Perhaps the vest is too heavy; or it prevents them from making a particular motion that is critical to their duties; or it adds too much weight when combined with the other gear they carry; or it causes the soldier to overheat when combined with other clothing they need to wear in a certain climate.

And all that IDEO and Creative Good did was ask questions, listen, and observe without assumptions.

The Critical Steps to Lasting Change

When you hit upon an idea that could improve your product and increase its usefulness to your customers, test it. In a small way. Soon.

Find a way to test the idea using the tools currently at your disposal. This is why massive redesigns often fail to produce results – instead of slowly making a product better in direct response to customer feedback, those improvements are held off, and then mixed with a kitchen sink approach to changing the product for a massive redesign.

Chat with others before, during and after you make changes. Test it out on a few people first.

Share your experiences with your colleagues. If you get feedback from a customer about your product, share it. If you have an idea for change, share it. If you make a change and learn that it did or didn’t work, share it. And don’t just wait to do a single email blast to everyone on your team, chat about it often in person, over the phone, via email, and over lunch.

Involve people early in the process, then consistently throughout it.

The funny thing is that some would feel that this is the most dangerous step. Why? Because you are peaking your head out of the trenches. By doing something, by contributing, you are setting yourself up as a target for feedback, for reaction, for people to choose sides. They are either with you, or against you.

In a recession, in a changing business climate, lots of folks do the opposite. They keep their head down. And that is the opposite behavior that your business and your career needs. Focus on improvement, on communicating, on surprising your customers by being even more useful.

Don’t be afraid to stand out in this manner, as long as your goals are to improve the lives of your customers and the usefulness of your products.

Be an advocate for those you serve.

Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and quite frankly, no one does. But it’s always helpful to bounce ideas off of someone else. If there is any way you think I can help, shoot me a note: dan@danblank.com. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DanBlank

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