The beloved “Nano”

Last week, Indian automobile industry took a major step. Tata Motors, one of the companies in the revered Tata conglomerate unveiled “Nano” – the long talked about 1 lakh car (1 lakh = 100,000 and 1 lakh rupees = $2500 US). This was a dream come true for Ratan Tata – Chairman of Tata Motors.

It was a proud moment for all Indians including me. Someone had pursued his dream, in spite of all the naysayers who said that a car could not be built at such a price point. He persevered, motivated his team to create something what others called unachievable and succeeded. That is the hallmark of a true leader. He had two important criteria that he would not compromise on – the car had to look attractive and had to meet safety standards. It sure looks cute if you ask me – looks something very much like the smart car popular in Europe.

Tata Nano and its creator - Ratan Tata

There are some very valid concerns in the general public around this announcement – impact on already congested Indian roads and the impact on increasing pollution. But let this not take away from what was achieved and how one man persevered to make his dream come true.

To me this car is going to make millions of people in rural India (where majority live) achieve their dream of owning a basic transport. Mr. Tata has changed the rules of the game needed to sell into this market segment. This is going to give a major boost to industries such as car repairs, car accessories, car parts etc. in rural India. This in turn will create more jobs and this can have nothing but a positive impact to the Indian economy.

This creation has more impact in revolutionizing the transport industry than any other product that I know. Oh by the way, remember how much hoopla was created in the US around the product codenamed Ginger what is now a failed product called Segway.

Mr. Tata, you have made a billion people proud last week. I hope that this turns to be the tipping point that makes more entrepreneurs worldwide – not just India – to believe in themselves, dream higher, persevere and succeed. I hope this car achieves market success and this becomes a tipping point that also forces the corrupt Indian politicians to wake up and fix the infrastructure problem that India desperately needs.

Customer experience – how often do you think about it?

Not often !! Think back to all the products that you have bought in your life – for how many of them has the buying/first usage experience been so good that you have remembered it. In my case – exactly two – iPod and iMac. In fact, I was so impressed with my iMac packaging, I took pictures while I was opening the package (see below). Setting up the machine was so much fun that I did not want it to end.

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Horrible first use experience permeates both hardware products and also computer software. I think before any new products are released to the market, the executive management and product managers should watch some real people (not designers, not developers) try to use their product the first time. That should stop claims every marketing department loves to make – easy to use, easy to deploy (my foot !!).

Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing in his blog post On buying and using describes his horrendous first user experience with a JBL portable player for his iPod. Such examples are everywhere – so why do great companies like Apple get it right – they take the time and give it the right amount of priority during design. They are not necessarily smarter than the rest of us, they just know that their products are going to be used by people who are very different from them and hence take the time to think how best to design the product to make it easy.

Steve points out how product packaging gets shoe horned into a one size fits all approach for all sales channels because one of the channels exhibits high incidence of product theft. Companies should start paying more attention to how customers buy if they want to make differentiation especially in product areas where all products are starting to look like. After all, good looks sell. Otherwise, you will have people like Steve and me openly writing about our horrendous experiences with products on our blogs for the rest of the world to read. Welcome to the new world of bad PR !!

Remove the unnecessary so that necessary can speak !!

This morning, while walking through Terminal 3 of the San Francisco airport to get to my gate, I happened to notice the design museum display near the moving walkways. The museum is titled “From Prototype to Product: Thirty-three Projects from the Bay Area Design Community“.Behind each display, were quotes of some famous people.

One of them caught my eye – it said ““The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”. After getting home, I googled it to find that it is a quote by Hans Hofmann. The reason I find this quote very interesting is because it captures what good product design is all about. Designing a good product involves spending more time deciding what features NOT to include than deciding what features to include. I would bet that designers of iPod had all the pressures to add a zillion features to it – an AM/FM radio station, ability to add/edit/delete songs etc. But they did not – because adding all of these features would have destroyed the elegant design. The end product does not do everything, but what it does it does very elegantly. To this day, I would be willing to pay more for a remote control that would do the five things I want to do – play, stop, forward, rewind, power on/off, instead of the other 500 features it has making it impossible to find these features. The office phone is another example. Try doing a conference call.

To do this right, you need to understand who your target user is and then saying no to features that are not needed by target users. You cannot listen to sales, they will tell you that you need everything under the sun. You cannot listen to just your existing customers, they will ask you for more and more features. What you need to do is get out and talk to real people who want to use your product – especially people who have not yet bought your product. Observe them struggle using the current products (your products or competitors) and then figure out what you can do to simplify their lives. It is not easy, but good things never come easy.

How true is this in your company?

I have found this picture to be very hilarious and after having talked to different people working in different companies, I am led to believe this is very true in a lot of companies. (I give the credit to the original creator of this picture whose name is unknown to me)

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To avoid the above situation, in my opinion a product manager has to do three fundamental things:

1) Thoroughly understand the customer problem, rather than taking what the customer tells you at face value. Need to do a deep dive with the customer using the concept of Five why’s. While doing this, you need to make sure you need to involve your engineers/qa etc. or take the time to educate them about the customer problem that needs to be solved.

2) Engage the customer throughout the product development process to ensure that you are building what he is really looking for. My mantra is that it is never too early to show anything to your customers. Sign NDA’s if you have to, but engage them early. Get them to review specs, let them play with early code. The whole idea is to know if you are building the right thing, that you are rowing the boat in the right direction. The boat could be leaking water at this time because it is not finished, but you want to make sure that you are building the right boat and rowing it in the right direction.

3) Educate other departments in your company about the customer problem and why you are creating this product/service so that they can align their tasks with what you are trying to do.

Business Card Innovation

As I had mentioned in one of my previous posts on Incremental Innovations, you come across some simple product innovations that make you say Wow, why didn’t someone think about that before?

This weekend, I attended the TieCon East Conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. There I met with Alan Chachich, President of BreakThrough NPD. I have known Alan for the last couple of years. When we were catching up on stuff, he handed me his new business card and that is when I discovered this great little product innovation that to me makes a lot of sense and solves a problem I have always had. The back of his business card looks like that shown below (click on the image for a larger view)

Alan’s Business Card

Brilliant !! I meet so many people during customer visits, user conferences and other industry conferences. I collect business cards from many people and in many cases I have follow up actions that I need to take. Or in other cases, I want to jot down topics that I have discussed. This is exactly what Alan has done on the back of his business card and in a very professional way. No more messy notes that I leave on the card or elsewhere. I will admit that I don’t know if this is Alan’s original idea or not, but this is the first time I am seeing this and hence I have to give some credit to Alan for it.

Incremental Product Innovations that wow you!!

You come across certain incremental product innovations that make you say “Wow” and then make you wonder “why did’nt anyone think about these before?”. Here are some of them that have come to my mind where I have said the above:

1) Hotel check-in self service kiosks that also allow users to print boarding passes for flights. I just experienced this for the first time at Hilton New York and I was so pleased.

2) Handles on the 5 gallon water bottles that you use on the water coolers. Imagine how difficult it was to place a new water bottle when they did not have a handle? Now this innovation has appeared on other products such as paint cans.

3) Ketchup bottles that sit upside down so that it is easy to dispense ketchup. Again, this now appears on toothpastes, body washes etc.

Ketchup bottleBody wash bottle

Again, as I said these are in my opinion incremental but very effective product innovations. These are so obvious improvements to someone who just observes users trying to use these products before these improvements were made. But what is important is that the observation had to be made.

Industrial designers have mastered the art of ethnography, software industry is way behind. When it comes to software, it is very easy for us to say “user error” or classify the user as an incompetent user. This has to change and I am positive it will.

The other point I want to emphasize is that all product innovations do not have to be revolutionary. You do not have to invent another “ipod” like product to innovate. After all, there are more evolutionary product innovations than revolutionary innovations. All one need to do is get out of one’s office and observe real people using your product.