Spring renewal – or reinventing a product

Ah Spring in Chicago, you never quite know what you’re going to get.  In fact it is the ultimate in failed consumer experiences because in early March you often get a couple of days of really warm weather (up to 70 degrees this year) and if you’re not careful you develop the false expectation that the days will be warmer and sunnier from there on out.  But you have to remind yourself that YOU live in CHICAGO, where it can shift in a matter of hours from a balmy 75 degree morning with no clouds in sight to a wickedly windy 30 degree afternoon with snow and freezing rain.  Which was exactly the weather we experienced yesterday – the snow part I mean, definitely NOT the balmy part.  Praise the weather gods that my commute started at a quarter to 6 when no one was on the roads still, it was much worse for some of my other colleagues trying to make it down to Lincoln Park from the outer burbs at the typical rush hour.

In many ways, the unpredictable weather is like a poorly released product all hyped up with insufficient substance to support it. 

Follow me here and I’m sure you will recognize the symptoms of the 9 Steps to the Vault of Irrelevance

1. Marketing has identified the top 3 problems that they believe consumers are trying to solve and have tweaked the positioning to get the masses all excited about how this product will be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

2. The product requirements documentation is developed to match these specifications but no significant research is attached to it that provides the emotional expectations of the consumer and how they perceive each particular problem area.

3. Compromises are made in the development process to the point that only one of these three features is likely to make it into the initial release.  One feature would take too long to meet the release deadlines that the corporate honchos are demanding to cover the investments required and the other feature was caught up in a political debate about whether this is the type of product that “our company” or “our division” would build for “our consumers.”  Further arguments around the third feature force it to be shaped in unnatural ways to support the company’s proprietary solution or brands (think Sony portable audio equipment using Memory Stick technology, the Playstation 3 and Blu-Ray, or Microsoft software if you need examples).

4. In the meantime, Sales and Product Management are hyping up the soon to be released product promising that it will be the greatest thing since sliced bread while demonstrating all three features with the caveat that two of them will probably make it into the next greatest thing since sliced bread otherwise known as “version 2” or better yet, “service pack 1.”  One reason why they hype the product in this fashion is because they believe that this will convince consumers to adopt our product line and brand rather than the competitor’s.  Note: this used to work back in 1995 – todays bloggers and reviewers have seen one too many “phantom” vaporous releases such that they will pan your product hard if you attempt to overhype it – and they will be merciless when you attempt to release version 2 if it takes too long or fails to deliver the “forgotten features.”

5.  Beta releases or perhaps early R&D versions of your product are reviewed by journalists and enthusiasts and they really want to love your product because it seemed so cool when they learned of the concept, but they keep tripping over the interface, the unnatural lock-down to your proprietary technology, or the missing features that would have made this the “perfect product.” 

6. After two unfortunate delays due to [name your hardware, software, or manufacturing issue] which were completely foreseen but improperly planned for, your product is finally launched with enormous fanfare and so much enthusiasm by your target consumers that it’s absolutely guaranteed that yours will be the fastest adopted product ever, besting the Palm Pilot, the Apple iPod, Playstation, and Windows 95…oh wait, that’s right, Vista is now the fastest adopted OS ever, sorry Microsoft. (Only one problem, my totally unscientific poll (n=7) shows that in spite of the numbers claimed, every enthusiast I have spoken with tells me they have yet to adopt Vista for full time usage because it’s too slow, buggy, or incompatible with their existing software and hardware – and these are software guys who jumped at Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP).

7. The first month’s sales report rolls in and little red flags are raised – people are kicking the tires but they definitely are not buying in droves.   Sales and Product Management continue to hit up the reviewers, the key influencers, and press interviews and push hard on their channel sales contacts.  The word that comes back is people want those missing features and they just don’t find your product very usable.  Or they find it very usable but not very deep in being able to help them solve their problems.  Either way, they’re not buying so you pray that it’s just early adoption issues.

8.  The first quarter’s sales report rolls in and not only are you not on track to be the fastest adopted product ever, you’re in serious consideration for being another one of those products that made it just out of the starting gate before collapsing. The consumer response is so deafening you can hear the crickets chirping.  Add to this the complaints that are coming in because the bugs and incompatibility issues are causing customers to call in requesting support for a faulty LCD, a general protection fault, or a locked up device when they hit the play button (or some other common action).  So even where you are selling product the margins are being further eroded by costs of technical support and RMAs.

9. A year later, your product continues to limp, even though you’ve released three “improvement packs,” and you’re trying to convince consumers that the forthcoming version 2 truly will be the next greatest thing since sliced bread. 

You simply cannot figure out why your presentations are greeted with hostility at best and indifference at worst.

So what’s the problem?  The problem started at the very beginning.  The product was pre-defined before truly capturing the insights of what problems consumers are trying to solve.  Now look, some of the issues identified above in the 9 Steps  are going to happen even if you do have a well defined product – they’re part of Murphy messing around with your process and bad things happening to good products.  But for a product to succeed you have to have a VERY clear message and a very simple solution path that resonates with everyone on the development and product teams.  They have to KNOW your target consumer so well that they can understand why a tweak in one direction would violate expectations.  What this does is clear the path such that you are not wasting time arguing over what is best for the product but instead focusing on avoiding the typical development, production, and marketing issues that can founder even the best of products being developed by the best of teams.

At K&A we call this developing an Innovation Mindset and it definitely starts at the top of an organization but it must be inculcated into the culture of the entire organization in order for you to succeed more consistently than the average bear.  The point in developing new products is not to fail fast, in spite of what some may say and many may believe.  In reality, it is capture the majority of your failures earlier in the development process such that a greater percentage of your successes make it to market and your investments are better than the typical 1 in 10 shots of a VC.  If you’re going to play that game, why not just take your money to the racetrack or the poker table.  You’ll at least have more fun in the process while you do flush your money down the toilet. 

We’ll delve more into the Innovation Mindset in future posts.