Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Product Innovation Through Process Knowledge

Executive Summary:
We innovate new products and solutions every day, but do those innovations really solve our customers’ problems, or are they just novel?  To ensure your new solution is a winner, understand your customers’ process and problems and how your innovation will make things better.

The Rest of the Story:
This week I took my children to the dentist and got my first taste of our pediatric dentist’s new digital system for managing patient information.  I was handed an iPad and asked to use the touch screen to update information for our family’s insurance and for my children.

It was pretty slick and easy to do.  But in the end, I ran into a few shortcomings of the whole solution that reminded me of an innovation challenge that I have encountered many times, both as a customer and as a designer.  That is truly knowing how a customer will use the solution.

First, the system would only let me update one child’s information easily.  I had to go through some special process, with the help of the receptionist, to update my other child’s information because my other child didn’t have an appointment that day.  Second, there was no solution to capture my signature, so I still needed to sign a piece of paper.  Bummer.

In terms of solving problems for my dentist, I can see how having the client enter information directly into the data system saves hours and hours of data entry and error-prone interpretation of various handwriting styles.  It’s a great solution in that sense.  It will also allow me to use the Internet to update information in the future. 

There is one significant problem that you probably already perceive.  It didn’t make anything any easier for the client.  In fact, excepting the novelty of playing with an iPad, the process is slightly more difficult for the client.  Of course, if it is difficult enough, clients will request to fill out the paper form instead, or will otherwise voice their opinions about the system and the dentist’s problems will return in a new form.

In short, whoever developed the solution probably considered how to make things easier and more manageable for the dentist, but didn’t consider the dentist’s clientele well enough.  For the client, filling out a paper form compared to a digital form is no different, except to the computer-phobic who will protest.  But the ways the system’s rules are set things are in some ways more difficult for the client.

This happens often with the development of new solutions, particularly electronics and software interfaces.  Consider for a moment the last time you ran into a product or a solution that must have made sense to the programmer or designer, but doesn’t make sense to you?  Was it within the last week?  Probably you ran into at least one in the last month.  It might have been a smart phone app, or a Web site, or the instructions for an electronic gadget.

I’m a firm believer that as we begin to develop solutions for a diverse customer base, we naturally make the mistake of believing that the way we envision the solution to help, is not what really helps.  This is because we become focused on the technology, the possibilities, on optimizing performance, and we tend to think in one of two ways.

Either we dictate the only way to use our solution because it is clearly the best and simplest, and simple is good, or we create as many options, choices, and possibilities as possible, because more choices is better.  If you need a metaphor, think Mac vs. PC.  Mac is really easy to use, as long as you are willing to do it the way the Apple designers envisioned.  Heaven help you if you want to do it differently.  PC gives you many ways to do one thing, which drives some people crazy because they don’t care to become computer geniuses; they just want to get one thing done.

There are benefits and penalties to both approaches, but there is also an alternative, particularly if you are trying to make an existing customer activity easier.  That alternative is to learn how the customer already does it, and make it easier to do it the customer’s way.  Alternately, if the customer’s way is full of work that you can eliminate, then eliminate it, but not at the expense of the outcome or by putting the work on someone else.

I have a fair amount of experience solving process problems, and I have been able to turn that process understanding to use in identifying customers’ processes and opportunities for products or services to solve customers’ problems.  It is a very powerful approach.  In terms of innovation methods that do this, I have really only encountered and used two.  One is called Outcome-Driven Innovation.  The other I learned from Value Engineering.

The Outcome-Driven Innovation methodology provides a structured approach to discovering the various outcomes that a customer already achieves well with current solutions, that the customer achieves, but not well, or that the customer simply does not achieve.  The last group can be split into outcomes that would be beneficial to achieve, and those that are not achieved because they are not needed or desired.  It’s a very well thought-out process.

The Value Engineering science utilizes a tool called Function Analysis, in particular, the Function Analysis System Technique for FAST Diagram.  This approach begins by identifying a specific task then asks the question “how” to derive the various ways the task is accomplished.  It generally results in a tree of functions and supporting functions or activities to complete the task.  The tool then compels the user to ask the question “why” while retracing the tree in the opposite direction.  Eventually the user understands how and why each activity is performed.  Now the user can look for ways to simplify either how something is done, or otherwise satisfy one of the whys in order to build a simpler or more effective solution.

As I said, I have used both of these methods.  I find them to be very similar to each other, though one claims no influence from the other.  They are both very useful and effective if used properly.  However, they both take some experience to become proficient.  Don’t expect your first attempt at either to be a smooth execution without the mentoring of someone who is experienced.

Whether by use of Outcome-Driven Innovation, or FAST Diagrams, or my own investigation and breakdown of customers’ processes and activities, I have had great success, and have mentored teams to great success in developing highly satisfying solutions when the customers’ actual activity or process is understood or addressed.  It takes time and effort, and sometimes money, to gather the information, but it can mean the difference between a novel, but unsuccessful solution, and one that everyone is jumping to own.

Let’s look at the example from my dentist.  If each client of the dentist had a username and password or PIN, I suspect the signature problem could be eliminated.  I know that all of my insurance companies accept my on-line credentials for every transaction.  Also, if the rules for access to client information were not limited to the time around appointments, then information could be updated when the client was thinking about it, or already in the system, eliminating the number of times a client is required to interface, or the number of steps required to interface.

The fixes are simple, but the developers in this case didn’t anticipate them.  Perhaps they didn’t walk the process from the client’s perspective, or they developed what seemed like the best system in the mind of software developers, but didn’t understand the mind of the customers and their clients.

Don’t make the same mistake with your own products.  Make it part of your innovation or product development process to examine and map out how your customers, and their customers, will interface with your solution.  Identify the opportunities to make things easier.  Make sure that you don’t just pass the work to someone else. 

Novelty is great, but it quickly wears off.  When it does, will your solution still be the cat’s meow, or will it be buyer’s remorse. 

Stay wise, friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment