A breath of fresh air

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have never seen a wrench or a screwdriver you will have a hard time seeing what you need, even once you discover that your hammer does not work very well on bolts or screws. This makes it hard to break away from tools that do not serve you. Under pressure, companies tend to fall back upon what they know, so they often end up trying to solve problems with the same tools that got them into trouble in the first place. When this tactic threatens to choke an organization, we call it "breathing your own exhaust."

Right now, many companies see an opportunity to approach product creation from a fresh perspective. With the frenzied dot-com "business model" no longer a distraction, and the recession apparently easing, these companies are looking for ways to benefit from their painful experiences and create a better crop of products and services. They want to nurture customer loyalty by building products that please their customers, rather than following fads or stacking up long lists of features that no one really wants. Everyone knows pleasing customers is the right thing to do, but how do you really do it?

Many common mistakes are easy to make: Trying to please too many disparate customers makes your product into an incoherent Frankenstein monster that no one loves. Trusting that several iterations of product ideas based on wild guesses will eventually get you close to a great product costs time, money, and market opportunity. It takes research, humility, and skill to truly understand your customers well enough to serve them better than your competitors.

You want a clear picture of a great product before you even commit to building it, a blueprint that can guide your development process. But few organizations have the ability to produce such a blueprint when digital technology is involved. Traditional methods of product planning just don't account for those products' complex behaviors. Managers have learned that letting engineers determine what those behaviors should be results in products that frustrate people who aren't already masters of technology. But most managers don't know how to direct engineers to put their products in the human context of their users.

Both human customers and technology products are complex, and you need a good understanding of both to marry them together, but the gap between business strategy and product development yawns wide. On the one hand, marketing executives know what outcomes they want, yet are stymied by their inability to communicate their vision to the technical members of the team. On the other hand, development and manufacturing managers want somebody to take responsibility for defining a winning product, but vital information always seems to get lost in translation. Executives and product managers fear falling into this gap as they try to define, plan, design, develop, and market their new digital products.

In trying to bridge that gap, many companies look outside their own walls for help. They ask consulting companies to help them see around corners. But it's not feasible to hire a consultant for every new product initiative, and when you do bring in outside help, your own product team still has to follow up on their work, especially if you have a success and try to capitalize on it with new versions and spin-offs.

No wonder consultants are offering more and more training in designing digital products. (It's why we are doing it here at Cooper.) In recent years, consulting companies have built up a lot of expertise that more and more companies need. If you are looking at training for your company, here are some things to think about when you look at the options:

  • Your goals. What problems do you want to solve? The curricula of some training programs weigh more heavily on the side of interface-level tips and tricks. Others talk about team-wide processes for design and development or focus on specific technologies.
  • Bang for your buck. How much do you need to invest in training? Training that focuses on tactical, interface-level design improvements costs less time and money than training in strategic planning, but learning more strategic skills can have a bigger payoff.
  • Philosophy. Do you want a survey of several different techniques, or do you want to concentrate on one? A survey of multiple techniques may be less risky if you don't know where to start, but may sacrifice time that you could spend mastering a method in depth.
  • Attendees. Should a single individual represent your entire organization, or do you prefer to expose a number of people—perhaps from a breadth of disciplines or departments—to the novel ideas presented in the training? Some programs include team-building exercises, while others do not.
  • Reputation. Who are the people providing the training? Are they famous names, academic experts, skilled practitioners? What kind of background will serve your needs?
  • Follow-through. Do you want follow-up support from your trainers? Some trainers make themselves available after training to help clarify issues and build a community of designers.

Changing the way you understand your customers and turning that understanding into new products requires new skills, perspective, and organizational commitment. If you find yourself breathing your own fumes in trying to assemble those skills within your company, it may be time to open your doors for a breath of fresh air.