By John C. Mitchell
How much time and effort should companies invest in understanding their customers? For many firms, the answer is clearly MORE. Innovators of all stripes, but especially engineers, benefit significantly from studying, understanding, and empathizing with the people who will ultimately evaluate, purchase, and use the products and services they create.
During my holiday break I read an article on CNBC.com that described how engineers at healthcare technology companies are spending more time in the clinical environments where their products will be used—emergency rooms, surgical suites, and doctors’ offices. Engineers observe procedures, sit in on consultations, and map out clinical workflows. These interactions—people in the world of market research call them “contextual inquiry”—provide critical insights into how physicians and other clinicians do their jobs and the needs they feel along the way. By spending a day or more watching and learning, engineers become better equipped to solve customer problems with innovative products and services.
By spending a day or more watching and learning, engineers become better equipped to solve customer problems with innovative products and services.
As someone who helps medical-products and technology companies do this kind of customer research regularly, I was both encouraged and frustrated by implications of this article. It is encouraging to see that more and more companies recognize the value of putting the people who design products into close and frequent contact with the people who will use them. It is frustrating because contextual inquiry has been a recognized best practice in new product development for over 30 years. American engineers first embraced the concept of “genba” visits as early as 1988, when Taiichi Ohno, a Toyota executive, introduced them in his discussion of the famous Toyota Production System. This method is not new, and it persists in popularity across many industries because it works.
Even more frustrating, however, is the fact that for some of the companies mentioned in the article, the imperative to get closer to customers came not from the product developers, but from the customers themselves. The most effective innovators do not wait to be asked. They take the initiative and go to customers to get the answers they need.
The most effective innovators do not wait to be asked. They take the initiative and go to customers to get the answers they need.
If you have not set aside days or reserved budget to visit and watch your customers, perhaps it is time to reconsider and re-prioritize. If your customers ask you to come to their site, please take them up on the offer, immediately. Because if you are not willing to spend time with them, perhaps your competition is.
In every client workshop I deliver on the value of listening to the Voice of the Customer or conducting effective observational research, I am sure to make the same critical point: engineers cannot spend too much time with customers. Customer centricity begins with customer empathy. The most innovative companies—Apple, Microsoft, Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson—all devote extensive resources to seeing the world through their customers’ eyes. How about yours?
To learn more about using market research to innovate product development, watch our recent webinar "Voice of the Customer: Fact vs Fiction" which de-bunks common VOC mistakes and misinterpretations.