Three Consumer Trends

Morning,

I received an e-mail last night from a fellow product developer. He is Taiwan giving a talk about “Design for Experience” and designing electronics for the American consumer market. He posed the following question:

Can you identify, from your own intuition or knowledge, top 2-3 customer behavior or cultural trends that affect the US consumer when buying electronic products? Just as an example, are Americans becoming less brand-loyal because they have more comparison data available to them?

Responding to his e-mail resulted in the following thoughts about trends and the American consumer:

Dissatisfaction with Overly Complex Products

These are products that arent well designed. They have difficult interfaces; probably where some engineer demanded a whole bunch of extra features at the expense of usability. They may also be products where the designers and engineers didnt have a vision for an easy-to-use product, i.e. they didnt design for experience.

ABC News reported that “complexity causes 50% of product returns”. They went on to say:

The average consumer in the United States will struggle for 20 minutes to get a device working, before giving up, the study found.

Product developers, brought in to witness the struggles of average consumers, were astounded by the havoc they created.

She also gave new products to a group of managers from consumer electronics company Philips, asking them to use them over the weekend. The managers returned frustrated because they could not get the devices to work properly.

Most of the flaws found their origin in the first phase of the design process: product definition, Den Ouden found.

The entire article can be read at:

http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/print?id=1691901

When this happens, products get returned (which is horribly expense to the manufacturer and the reseller). When a customer returns a difficult to use product, it is likely they will try a less expense model (with less features / complexity).

New is Better Mentality

This a potential trap is a trap for product designers and manufacturers. If you are a manufacturer and you assume that your product will have a usable lifetime of two years, then you will have some percentage of products that just plain wear out before then. This leads customers to believe that it was a crappy product and they may look for another manufacturers product when they replace the item. This is a trend that I believe is hurting Apple in the MP3 market. This is a very competitive market where word about their product failures (not many, but enough) has given them a black eye at the time when some people (new is better folks) are considering upgrading their players. Apple has a great product, but their product failures (less than 2% of products) are widely known. These failures are often an excuse for teenagers who want to move to the “new is better” (i.e. the Zune).

Culture of the Online Review is Here

There a now many websites that allow consumers to review the products that they purchase. However, this open environment can be a double-edged sword. Apple actually allows product reviews and discussions on the www.apple.com website. If you dont embrace your user group, then it is likely that some ambitious webmaster will (and you lose the ability to do it on your own in a meaningful way). The internet is here, online reviews are here to stay. Here are some ways that you can make the most of the opportunities:

A) Allow negative remarks

Every so often, Clark Howard (a radio personality at www.clarkhoward.com) reads some of the negative remarks from his forums on the radio. Many of his listeners are extremely loyal. This type of transparent behavior, on his part, only substantiates the philosophy of customer service and company tranparency (when it comes to customers) that he preaches.

B) Respond to criticism with product improvements

If you make design changes (of the next round of products) based on on-line feedback, then tell your online users what you did. Thank them for the input. A note from a company president on the relevant forum, thanking someone for their feedback just created customers for life and probably evangelical ones at that.

C) Dont blow off your online reviewers as “kooks”

Granted there is always some “dissatifed at life individual” whom no one can please, but other online reviewers pick up on that an discount most of those opinions. Look for two things in the online reviews.
Identify real issues that the users face in operating your product. Most importantly look for work arounds that users develop for product definciencies. Customer work arounds are your customers doing your creative work for you. Evaluate each customer work around very carefully. They are a potential gold mine of product improvements. Some work arounds may lead to you design new accessories (which represent the potential for follow on income and extended product sales life). Other work arounds may lead you to significant, or minor, product design changes.

D) Never, no never, lash out at online reviewers

The truth is the truth no matter who states it, or how it is stated. Many people get rude and overly critical when posting online. They say things they would never say in person. Look for the truth, understanding that most online reviews will be negative.

E) Understand lurking

Only of a small percentage of online viewers will ever actually post in the forums. This is called lurking. Lurking is where you look, but never post. If you are doing well 1-3% of your visitors will post. Any percentage higher than 3% should be considered as a huge success. Low lurking percentage means that you have a highly involved user community.

F) Be bold and consistent over the long run!

Lets say a customer is complaining the product needs some easily added feature (easily added if you are designing from scratch). Maybe you could even implement this feature with a change in firmware. Once you make the firmware change you have to test, distribute etc. Making this change requires resources that you are currently using on the next generation product. If you make this change, you potentially slow down the release of the next generation of product.

To make it worse, in a meeting a couple of years ago, someone suggested this feature. However, it was deemed more important to spend time on other features. So now you are faced with a decision. Do I slow down the new product to implement a “customer relations” change, or do I just keep going and forget about the potential improvement. If you go on with the new product, getting to market quickly is important. However, adding the feature to the current represents a potential win amoung the user / customer base.

It is much easier to sell to an existing customer than find new ones. Jay Conrad Levinson talks about this in the book “Guerilla Marketing”. You can find out where to purchase the book at www.gmarketing.com. As we all know, because of the customer, marketing and product design are intimately related. Why have to spend all the money to find new customers, when the existing customers are already there. Promoting on-line reviews can help sell the next round of products as well as sell products today. Promoting this type of activity helps marketing and sales, but should be driven by the product managers and designers for maximum value (i.e. return of investment).
If you implement the new feature in the current product, then do it quickly. This type of response is appreciated by the person suggesting the improvement. In these days of “customer diservice” other readers will be amazed at how responsive the manufacturer is to their opinons and suggestions. Maybe your programmers would appreciate the opportunity to directly impact customers by being responsive to customer feedback. Maybe this responsiveness is part of a company-wide attitude of excellence.

Communicate the addition of th new feature to the customer(s) who suggested it. Maybe make him, or her, a celebrity amoung the other users. Maybe put him in the next commercial. Maybe let him send out a mailer, or e-mail, (under your supervision) to all of the registered users.

This type of boldness isnt tolerated in many companies, so you may not be able to pull this off in your organization. Many users would be thrilled with smaller gestures (less risky) from the manufacturer. Assigning a product manager the collateral duty of just responding to customer comments could make a huge difference in how your product is perceived in the broader market. This is especially true with the rise in popularity, and credibility, of the blogosphere. At the same time, that product manager has his finger on the pulse of a portion of the user community. That can translate to design wins on future products.

Whatever you do, make sure that you do it consistently and continue the user relations campaign for an extended period of time. Starting a user relations campaign up and suddenly going silent may do more damage than doing nothing. You can read more about public relations consistentcy on Frank Williams (Pioneer Strategies) blog at
http://www.pioneerstrategies.com/newsltr_oct04.htm and http://www.pioneerstrategies.com/newsltr_may04.htm.

Consistentcy, longevity, and a passion to be an advocate for the customer are the keys to making the most of these opportunities.

As always, you comments and suggestions are welcome. Please dont hesitate to leave a comment here, or send an e-mail to montie@montie.com.

Best Regards,
Montie Roland
President – Montie Design (www.montie.com)
President, Carolinas Chapter of the PDMA (www.pdma.org/carolinas)
Home of the NC Product Design Directory

Montie Roland

Montie Roland is President of Montie Gear, a manufacturer of outdoor sporting equipment in Sanford, NC. Montie is also employed at Pentair in Sanford, NC as a Mechanical Engineer on the New Product Development team. Montie enjoys finding innovative solutions to customer requirements. He has 15 years of experience engineering products in diverse market spaces including industrial, commercial and military. Montie earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. He is also the President Emeritus of the Carolinas chapter of the Product Design Management Association (www.pdma.org/carolinas) and a founder of the RTP Product Development Guild (www.rtpproductguild.com).

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