A balancing act: product vision and customer expectation
There are few relationships as deep and passionate as that between a start-up founder and their product. Your product will dominate your thoughts all day and even through the night from time to time. You’ll ask yourself questions like how can I improve my product, how can I make people buy it, is it the right product? You’ll be driven constantly to innovate and change it.
But do you think you have all the answers and know what is right? Or do you completely rely on external output in your quest for innovation? Mastering the balancing act between your own product vision and what people actually want is an ongoing challenge that every entrepreneur must face.
The two extremes
Every entrepreneur fusses over their product. While this is to be expected, in my experience entrepreneurs fall into two categories, with the extreme examples of each category outlined below:
Extreme 1: The expert
The expert knows what’s up. They are usually trained and/or experienced in their area of expertise. This knowledge leads to them being very self-assured about their product vision. They have a clear idea where the project is heading and what kind of features it should have.
The big disadvantage of this type of entrepreneur is overconfidence. By thinking they know what the customer wants and needs, they more often than not develop their product right past their target audience. Sub-par sales are usually the consequence of this development style.
Extreme 2: The listener
The listener is at the opposite end of the spectrum. They don’t develop anything they came up with themselves. Instead, they ask the customer what they want and implement it. Although that is the right approach, the listener faces problems with execution.
The listener risks a lack of innovation by implementing only what customers think should be implemented. Customers are usually neither trained in that specific field, nor do they come up with visionary ways of changing things. The resulting product tends to be an uninspired collection of already-existing functions. This can demotivate an entrepreneur because the product they end up with can be nothing like what they originally wanted to build.
Two ends of a spectrum
Both examples are extreme and the two ends of a spectrum that every product developer occupies. Every product developer sits somewhere on the spectrum and probably leans more towards one end than the other.
However the midpoint is not the optimal point to be. Every industry has its own challenges and rules and its sweet spot has to be individually determined for your business.
An example: You want to introduce a tasty new sandwich in a small town.
The expert would create a sandwich, they think tastes good and starts selling it. Since they did not involve customers in the development process, they did not realise that the town is mostly vegetarian and the sales for their meat-lovers-bacon sandwich are lousy.
The listener would spend a few weeks interviewing people and would find out about the vegetarians. But it’s all pretty much downhill from there because some customers don’t like tomato, some don’t eat gluten, some like spicy, some don’t and so on. By trying to take everything the customers say into account without having their own baseline concept, they either end up with a very plain sandwich or none at all.
The right course of action in this case would be to do some quick preliminary research of the target audience. Then you create a sandwich that you think the audience will like. To validate your “design” you let people try it and criticise it. Now you go back into the kitchen and implement that knowledge, iterate, but stay with your basic concept. In the end you should have a delicious sandwich that people like and which is still your brainchild.
The strategic approach
To make the sandwich example above applicable to a wide range of businesses, it has to be generalised and put into an actionable form.
Step 1 – Find where you are on the spectrum
Find out where on the spectrum you currently are. That is very hard to determine from the inside. Your view on what is important and what will yield the best results is biased, so you need to get help to counter this. I think the best possible approach is to work with a mentor who has experience in your field. Together you can look at your existing processes and determine how much time is spent on innovation and customer satisfaction.
Step 2 – Find the optimal spot on the spectrum
Find out where is the optimal spot on the spectrum for your sector. You can use the internet or even better ask people who have experience in the industry. Again, a mentor is invaluable as they can help you to prioritise between the two ends of the spectrum. This does not mean that you should let them determine where on the spectrum you sit. Through discussion and arguing the essential points of your business, you will be able to determine your unique position on the spectrum. If you can’t find a mentor, looking at your competition and how similar businesses conduct themselves can give you the needed perspective.
The expert needs to face the fact that they are not all-knowing and that they miss out on potentially great input from customers and other people. Their biggest challenge is to get past their ego. A mentor can help to tone this down, since they are usually more experienced than the expert.
The listener needs to stop being afraid of not meeting every customer’s expectation, and learn that you can’t satisfy everybody, as this only leads to unnecessarily complicated and expensive-to-develop products. Working with a mentor can give a listener the necessary confidence to claim their place on the spectrum.
Step 3 – Develop a strong base concept
Develop a strong base concept for your product and stick with it. Collect both customer recommendations and recommendations from people in your circle (employees, family, friends). Now compare that data with your own expectations. Equalise between the two as much as you are comfortable with – the product still needs to be something you believe in. You can make a list of features you would like to see in your product and those your customers want. Mark all the features you are adamant about having and delete those you don’t think will add anything to the product. Give the same list to your mentor or someone with experience and let them do the same. All the features both of you marked are must haves and the ones you both crossed out can be discarded. Those with just one delete or one tick can be collected and stored for future development.
Step 4 – Improve and iterate till you’re happy
Improve the product with the information you have collected and present it to your customers. Iterate till both you and your customers are happy with the result. Be mindful that the costs and benefit of individual improvements are proportionate.
You can set up a strategic development plan to help with product development. By setting the goals you want to achieve in your product development and assigning specific deadlines you can stay in control of the process. I would plan fixed process audits along the way to evaluate if the path you’re on is still the right one.
Whether you consider yourself an expert, a listener or somewhere in between, you have to be aware that both ways are needed to develop a product. Find the balance that best suits you and your product and you will see your vision become a reality.