Can Your Product Development Move Closer to Consumers Now?

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published: January 21 2010

Half a year ago, I wrote about the need to include customer input in the design process in What Brings Customers Closer to Your Product Development? Recently, two pieces of Web content caught my attention and made me revisit this topic.

The first one, The Path to Successful New Products, from the recent issue of McKinsey Quarterly, outlined three principles of making product development more successful, amongst which the degree of “[talking] to the customer” is one of the differentiators that separate top performers from the rest. The second one, a press release from First Insight on January 10, 2010, announced the availability of a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that allows retailers and brands to have better visibility of consumers’ voices through social media marketing and sales channels.

Although Virtual Customer Viewpoint (VCV) (name of First Insight’s solution) mainly targets retailers in helping them “know better which products are going to be popular with consumers before they make their purchasing decisions”, I feel that there’s a possibility to use this approach in product development for manufacturers as well. Here are two cases:

1)      Manufacturers use social media channels to capture customers/consumers’ opinions and ideas directly.

2)      By building connections between manufacturers and retailers, consumers’ voices captured by retailers can be routed (or even sold in some cases) to manufacturers.

While noticing the opportunity for manufacturers to get closer to consumers through social media channels, I also realized that it might be more difficult for manufacturers to do so than retailers.

Firstly, there is more information to be exchanged between manufacturers and customers than between retailers and consumers. Retailers mainly care about which products to carry. Manufacturers, on the other hand, want to know more details about customer opinions toward product design. Textual communication with consumer communities may suffice the purposes for retailers to capture consumer preference but for manufacturers, communications need to be conducted in a richer and a more immersible way. No doubt, three-dimensional (3D) product models is an ideal vehicle for better communication but it requires the capability of accessing and modifying 3D content on the consumer side. As I discussed in the blog post mentioned above, I’m hoping for the democratization of 3D visibility, and I know that there are vendors working on making 3D more approachable.

Secondly, compared with retailers, it is probably more difficult for manufactures to react according to consumer opinions. When a prominent voice from the crowd is heard, retailers may adjust their buying, pricing, or promotion decisions promptly. But for manufacturers, product changes may not be as flexible due to limitations on the availability of technology, manufacturing facilities, sourcing capabilities, and such. One thing I can think of in order to relieve the pain in product changes is to listen to customers as early as possible—if a change is determined and initiated earlier, the cost required to implement the change is lower.

Lastly, how can a manufacturer protect its product’s intellectual property (IP) while maximizing the communication with a wide range of product stakeholders as early as possible? Usually, the question “what do you think about the product (or idea) that I’m presenting to you?” receives more valuable feedback from customers than a question like “what product do you think I should develop?” While the former is more effective in gathering customer opinions, it also asks for more efforts in protecting your IP.

With that being said, social media channels are opening a new door for product development to move closer to the consumer side but there is work to be done to help manufacturers fully realize the potential. I welcome your experiences and thoughts on this topic.
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