Remembering Your Customer


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Too many technology products are built for technologists. This raises their total cost of ownership and makes generally unsatisfying to use. When companies focus on whom their customers are (and what will make their work and lives easier) they create winning products that make work and life easier and more satisfying.

A Funny (Albeit Sad and True) Joke

I once heard the following joke:

Only two industries in the world call their customers “users.” One is the illegal drug trade; the other is the IT (software and computer) industry.

(I wish I could attribute this joke; I apologize to the comedian who made it up).

This joke is funny precisely because so many software and computer customers do not feel like customers. They have to learn terminology that does not fit with their everyday work and life. Their user experiences (UX) are often non-intuitive. The routinely have to perform technical setup and maintenance activities far more complicated than those they have to do for other high-end products they buy and use.

A Typical Case In Point: My Father’s Personal Computer (PC)

This week I am visiting my father. He owns a rather old PC that he views a basic utility that he only wants to use for three things:

  1. Emailing his friends
  2. Checking his financial portfolio, and
  3. Organizing his charity work

He does not care about things like the following:

  • Firewalls, Spyware, Viruses and Spam
  • Profile Management, Permissions and Roles
  • Task Schedulers, Disk Defragmentation and Temporary Files
  • Drivers, DLLs and Shortcuts

Unfortunately, in order to keep his PC in fast, secure running order, he (or someone in else with access to the household) is required to care about these and manage them on a regular basis. Because this did not happen, his computer “ground to a halt.” Fixing it required 10 hours of reconfiguration and repair work (by someone in the industry). I had to do some rather advanced things, like finding a good antivirus/antispam program well calibrated to run on an older PC: namely one with less memory and a slower CPU and hard drive (kudos to cnet for help on this).

The interesting part was when I was trying to explain what I was doing to fix the computer. I was required to resort to terms that sounded like gibberish to someone outside the computer industry: file systems, temporary files, operating systems, patches, drivers, defragmentation, drive spin rate, etc. My father is a retired engineer from Princeton and Lehigh and more-than-capable of understanding what I was describing; what he reminded me is that he did not care about how a PC worked, he simply wanted to use it for some basic needs.

A Simple Conclusion

This experience reinforced a simple conclusion—one I have written about often in my many business service posts:

A successful product is one that enables it customers to live (or work) more easily, efficiently or satisfactorily than they could do without it. A product that requires its customers to become experts in order to use it is not a successful one.

Tips to Developing a Successful Product

Many technology companies produce successful, easy to use (consumer and business) products. Just a few that immediately come to mind are: AIM, Apple, Cannon, Google, Nintendo and Salesforce. The companies who developed these products all follow a few shared characteristics:

  1. Center Your Product On Your Customers. Develop it around their needs. Use the terms and expressions they use, e.g., select if you are Parent or Child (or Manager or Staff Member) to set roles rather than forcing users to add and subtract authorized permissions
  2. Make Your Product Intuitive. Nobody reads instruction manuals; people like to explore to learn. Make your product intuitive and logic to your customers (instead of to your engineers). At AOL Steve Case used to have a saying, “if you have to teach me how to do this, then it will not be quickly and easily adopted by our customers)
  3. Make Maintenance Automatic. Don’t require your customers to become sports car mechanics to use your product. Make updates, maintenance and recovery automatic wherever possible (and intuitive when intervention is required). Look at models like SaaS that eliminate the need for customer maintenance.

Products that follow these tips are easy-to-adopt, low-cost to operate and a joy to use. When technology products follow these, they truly make our work and lives better.

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Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jim Haughwout
Jim Haughwout (pronounced "how-it") is passionate about creating technology that improves how people live and work. He is the Chief Technology Architect at Savi Technology and a General Partner at Oulixeus Consulting. His work has been featured by Network World, ZDNet, Social Media Today, the IBM Press, CIO Magazine, Fast Company, GigaOm and more.


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