Thursday, April 30, 2015

Guiding your Product Development through Voice of the Customer



“Great companies are built on great products.”    
- Elon Musk


Elon Musk was spot on about the importance of product development. Though many people may misunderstand a great product to an aesthetically pleasing product. The beauty of great product does not just lie in aesthetics, but rather on how elegantly the product works. It needs a right vision, the purpose and revolutionary changes. As Steve Jobs once said,


"Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together."


As much as revolutionary ideas are important to make any product a breakthrough invention, it is the successive iterative improvement which makes the product more usable, finely tuned and each element within plays together. Even if the product is first to market, it is the iterative improvement which helps an organisation to surge ahead in competitions. In order to improve, one needs to enable the feedback loop from the product users to product designers and developers. It is true even when the product is under development or product out in the market. While the quality assurance team, beta users helps under development product team, it is the real users who help in the development  of the product in the later stage. The objective of this article is to discuss the second part of this process.


Brief History

Iterative product development is not a new idea. It is natural that almost all things are built, developed over multiple iterations. Each iteration eliminates the bad and incorporates possible good into the things in concern. It is evolutionary in nature. Successive iteration done over a period of time changes the product completely from its inception. Compare the first digital computer ever developed to a smartphone of today's! Although they both are indeed digital computers, their purpose and uses are completely different. These are the improvement or rather changes that are made by considering some use cases which are called as functions and the value derived from it. Thus, I can arguably say that structured product development began during the World War II and goes by the name ‘Value Engineering’. Quality function deployment is another notable methodology which tries to make use of user’s feedback.

Changing Technology Landscape

With every new disruptive technology, it radically changes how we do the business. In a pre-era of Internet, the feedback was captured through customer surveys. These surveys collected over a period of time, are analyzed and feedback is incorporated into new improved version of any product. This process used to span over months and involved exhaustive human resources. The very same survey conducted offline can be done online and with very fewer resources. Each advancement in computing technology and adoption of it in the business process makes the process increasingly manageable. Meanwhile, the widespread adoption of Internet and new ways of communication are also changing behaviour of the customers. Now the agony of customer are not written and mailed through the post, rather it may be tweeted or commented on the wall of facebook page. Once quiet customer is now becoming more vocal. Their problems are not only sent to the organisation but also broadcasted to millions of other customers. This may affect adversely to any business if not handled properly.  Today Millions of customer support tele-calls are transcribed every day. The information explosion is real.  But to our relief with the information explosion, we are also better equipped to handle such amount of information and harness the power of data.

Consequences 

Like every automation technology, advancement in Natural Language Processing and ability to handle the large amount of data using distributed computing reduces the resources spent in processing customer feedback and increase the effectiveness of such system. This will eventually shorten the time to market or product development iteration time and help organisations to outdo their competitors. Now, we will be able to process these customer feedback written in free flowing text, extract relevant information, structure and organise it according to the specification. Later these extracted information is converted into functions and prioritised by considering how many people are facing it and various other ranking parameters. One can even go an extent of quantifying how emotionally customers are connected to issues and prioritise them.  One more important aspect of customer's voice is that finding the "unknown unknown". It is now easier to mine customer suggestion and incorporate new functions which are never considered by core development team. This helps any organisation to innovate with customer acceptance validations.

Although, these technologies helps us to crunch the large amount of data, extract meaning, organise them, the automation has no use if it is not put into use in the process of product development(PDP). Every organisation has their own processes even though they are similar in nature. These processes which are needs to be adapted to use the Voice of the Customer effectively.

Let us go through an example of how to use the voice of customers to improve a product. Suppose you are a smartphone manufacturer and you have a flagship phone received well by top critics and most users. Your sales figures are good. But you would like to listen carefully what users says about the phone on social media and reviews site to identify what are the top most problems which you might want to fix. To get to there, you list all credible reviews site where your phone is reviewed. Then grab all the reviews, split them by sentence, score each sentence with its sentiment, extract key phrase which are features in your phone which appeared negative sentences. Once you have got features, rank them by how many people are facing the problem and how important the issue is. Then the successive course of action is to prioritize customer care to handle such issues better and to figure out what can be done to fix such issues. In essence, ranking is a major tool to optimize.

What’s Next?

Much of the core technology parts used in processing customer feedback such as ‘sentiment  analysis’, ‘feature extraction’, ‘ranking’ can be reused in much larger Customer Experience Management, Brand Management domains. Also, these feedback can be quantified to aid strategic decision-making capabilities of any organisation. A complete elegantly integrated system will certainly help any organisation to serve their customer needs and adapt to changing landscape.

I will be primarily writing about CEM, Brand Management and Voice of the Customer in this space. We at Datoin are developing those very core technologies that can assist in building a complete suite of applications which solves the aforementioned problems. See you soon with something new to talk about. Stay Tuned!

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