The SV Hardware Startup to Scale Meetup hosted a panel on November 4 that covered the topic Embedding Customer Needs into Your Product Design.  Panelists included:

  • Jessica Ching: Strategic Marketing Advisor, ActionSpot and Lead Advising Consultant, Life Sciences for XRPIZE.
  • Mark Brinkerhoff: President of FusionDesign, a mechanical design company in Campbell since 1983.
  • Walt Maclay: President of Voler Systems, electronics, sensors and and firmware design.
  • Kevin Rowett, VP of Hardware Engineering, DSSD (OEM Product Development).

Asking Your Friend is NOT Customer Feedback

Customer validation of your product is critical to the successful launch of a new hardware product. Startups struggle with the questions of how much customer input is enough, and when the best time is to invest in customer research and feedback. As Jessica Ching states it, “you need to know what people want in order to be successful.”  You need unbiased feedback, not the opinion of your Silicon Valley friends.

Share Mockups to Gain Unbiased Feedback

Mark Brinkerhoff likes to build mock-ups or prototypes, so that he can place the product in a customer’s hands and watch how they interact with it. In his experience, if you simply describe a proposed product to someone and ask them if they like it, they’ll give you an answer that they think you want to hear. With a mock up, you build something that mimics your product and put it in their hands in early development.

“Put it in front of them and just watch. See what they do with it. Do they do the things you expect them to do with it? When they start to do it, are they happy with it? You get market validation that way.”

Ideally the “works like looks like” is the fastest early exposure for your product. However, as Walt Maclay pointed out, even a rough mock-up that has the function but not the style can provide valuable feedback about what is important to your customer.

Understand Your Customer’s Needs & Pains

All panelists agree that you will need to talk to a lot of customers. You need to talk to dozens or hundreds of different people,” and, as Walt Maclay explains, “you know enough when before you go into the meeting, you know what the other guy is going to tell you.”  The question to discuss with your customer isn’t simply whether they will buy your product. According to Walt, “you have to talk to them and understand what their pain is, what their problems are. If you can solve their big pains, then you’ve got an interesting product.”

Kevin Rowett elaborates further, “find out what your product does for your customer, what it does for their business, why it makes them profitable or expands their market or reduces their cost…if you can understand what your product does for your customer, and makes them better in some way, then you have a chance of understanding the value of that product to the market.  Rowett cautions that sometimes your “customer” disappears before the product makes it to market, particularly when there is a long development cycle, like 2-3 years.  Whatever the customer and marketing requirements, ultimately the engineering group must choose the features to develop. You shouldn’t develop a product for a particular customer, rather “you have to build a product that you think will be sellable for some time to come or allow you to easily adapt it to new things as the market matures”.  

Take the Time to Document the Customer’s Voice

The Marketing Requirements Document (“MRD”), owned and authored by marketing,  is the document that captures the customer requirements you gather in your market and customer research. The Product Requirements Document (“PRD) is defined by product development as a response to the MRD. Finally, development responds with the technical document, the Engineering  Design Specification (EDS).

  • Follow the proper flow in writing the MRD, PRD, & finally the EDS
  • Go back and validate that what you write actually works
  • Identify tradeoffs. These often lead to phase 1 and 2 of products
  • Avoid the temptation to write an MRD or PRD from an engineering specification!
  • Make sure that the MRD, PRD and EDS have owners who regularly review and update them, and get buy in for changes.  They are your company’s living documents.

To help and engineer understand what a customer wants and why they need it, a marketer can supplement the MRD with multi-media imagery, drawings and videos — anything to help the engineer understand how the customer is going to use the product. As Jessica explains, “they need to understand what they’re building and why, so when it’s built, there will be a line of people waiting to buy the product.”

Get Customer Feedback

There is reluctance from some to get customer feedback during development.  It can be very expensive to do customer and market research.

  • Bring customers in to see your product. Most customers will come in for free.
  • You can develop regularly scheduled programs for your customers to use your product and provide feedback.  Mark described a program Snapon used to get regular periodic feedback from users by inviting them to use their products while they observed them. The tradeoff is that you will hear lots of complaints.
  • Give the customer a prototype or early stage product that is “done enough” so that they can use it to test how it fits their needs.
  • Create a customer profile or persona to use as you develop your product. This can help you understand what motivates your customer and help you identify your minimum viable product! Jessica Ching explained how Mazda’s profile of the “fun-loving” Miata customer drove their feature decisions more towards entertainment rather than automotive performance.

Mitigate Risk: Use Customer Feedback at the Fork in the Road

Customer feedback can be an important tool in mitigating risk during development. Jessica Ching describes the “fork in the road” decision-making moments as ideal opportunities to bring in and use customer input. Decision forks are points in time where a major decision that cannot be reversed must be made. Decision forks can be technical, like deciding the product platform. On the marketing side, these decisions can be defining your pricing or market segments. Customer research can help you choose the right fork, whether it is the technical direction of your product, or validate customer feature needs. Customer feedback will help you mitigate risk, before you cannot turn back.