With necessity being the mother of invention, sometimes innovative product ideas for rehabilitation and assistive technology are conceived through personal need or experience. Other product ideas are conceived in the laboratory while researching a particular question. At TREAT, we want to help all types of innovators develop their ideas into beneficial products. It’s a tricky business because sometimes an innovator will want to move forward with an idea on the assumption that if it meets their own needs or answers a research question it will gain universal support. They may have even been told by friends and colleagues what a great idea it is, solidifying the need in their mind. While such positive support is always good news to us at TREAT, our goal is to increase the odds of the product making it to market by replacing assumptions with evidence. To this end, TREAT emphasizes the importance of performing Customer Discovery before investing too much time and money in product development or forging ahead with an unvalidated business model.
Customer Discovery incorporates information on users and buyers into the product development process and enables risk awareness and risk reduction. A benefit in knowing the risk level is the ability to make business decisions based on that risk. Customer Discovery is an important and useful tool throughout the commercialization pathway. Here are three distinct evaluation stages of the product development process where Customer Discovery should be employed.
1) Validate the customer need and determine Market Requirements.
Key questions to plan on resolving at the very beginning include:
- Do the customers really have the need I think they do?
- What is the need or problem?
- Why is it important?
- What solutions have been and are being used to try to solve the problem?
Once customers’ wants and needs have been validated they can be translated into meaningful chunks of information – market requirements. Market requirements will inform how the product is conceptualized and designed. Market requirements by definition are not what the innovator wants the product to be, but are what the customer wants the product to be. This is an important distinction.
2) Validate the Market Requirements with customers to ensure that the requirements were interpreted correctly from the interviews you conducted.
The specific questions you ask will depend on the intended use of the technology and on existing market requirements. This may involve testing actions and activities with customers using a prototype or asking questions to assess whether the prototype meets the specified requirements. If, for example, you determined during your initial interviews that people who use crutches have trouble finding them in the dark and you develop your crutch with a solar-powered motion sensor light, now is the time to test your solution with end-users to see if it does indeed solve the problem.
3) Validating the Business Model
The specific activities one undertakes to validate the business model depends on the technology and commercialization goals, but they could include testing key messaging, revenue model, pricing, buying protocols, value analysis tools, fliers, websites, sales messages, in-service training, product benefits, etc. All of these analyses should be designed to confirm that what was learned in previous interviews and focus groups has been applied to the business model. In all cases a metric should be assigned to the test that determines an “it worked” or “it did not work” threshold.
No matter which of the above three evaluation steps is being undertaken, it is imperative to structure your questions to guard against bias. It is easy to fall into the bias trap and you should avoid:
- Asking leading questions
- Listening only for their agreement
- Ignoring what you don’t agree with
Conducting Customer Discovery One-on-One Interviews
An interview is a dynamic process that changes based on the conversation. As customers will offer a range of perspectives, the questions will vary depending on their role, the market segment(s) they represent, the purpose of the product, the setting in which it will be used, and its stage of product development and commercialization. At TREAT, we work with our client/awardees to make sure they are conducting effective interviews by posing the right questions to carefully selected stakeholders and then utilizing what they learn to make sound product development and business decisions.
Before conducting interviews:
- Carefully consider the goals of the interaction and overall questions to be answered.
- Write down the questions to be answered.
- Reflect on the key information to be obtained.
- Develop questions to elicit the necessary in-depth information.
Interview Best Practices
Remember: When validating the customer need and determining Market Requirements, this is not a time to sell or ask if they will buy the product. It is best not to even mention your own product or idea.
It is important to keep accurate and detailed records of the information resulting from customer discovery activities and to create summaries of your results. The insights gathered from these interviews go beyond customer problems and outcomes. How the interviewee seeks out new solutions, how much time and money they have spent on solving the problem, and how they prefer to make a purchase will be uncovered.
For more insight on Customer Discovery and other business development topics, visit TREAT’s Educational Resources for Business Development: http://treatcenter.org/educational-resources/business.