Developing Products to Create Value

I am reading Malcom Gladwell’s somewhat new book What the Dog Saw. It is an anthology of articles he has written for New Yorker magazine over the last few years.

The first chapter is about Ron Popeil, the icon of infomercials and “Set it… and Forget it.” Gladwell describes a fascinating product development slant – make the product easy to demonstrate. In making it easy to demonstrate, its benefits must be obvious. Its features must make it easy to use and simple. Complexity just does not cut it. And it must work, right out there in the open.

The chapter spends a lot of time on the Showtime Rotisserie. In the sales presentation, it is the product, not the salesman, who is made the center of attention. What it can do for you, how easy it is to use, and how it functions. The front is transparent, and angled so the customer can see the product work, in use (and during a demonstration on TV). The controls are simple enough that he can say “Set it… and forget it.” It is engineered (and was re-engineered in development) to prepare visually appealing perfectly cooked food. As it was being designed, it was continuously being used as it would be in a demonstration – the pitch and the product were developed simultaneously.

Because I love examples of opposites, this is the part that really drove the difference home for me:

If Ron [Popeil] had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words he would not simply have sold it… He would have changed the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial. The clock, for example, wouldn’t be digital. (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.) The tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door – it would be out in plan view, just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn. The controls wouldn’t be discrete buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step in the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it. And would it be a slender black, low profile box? Of course not. Ours is a culture in which the term “black box” is synonymous with incomprehensibility. Ron’s VCR would be in red-and-white plastic, both opaque and transparent, or maybe 364 Alcoa aluminum, painted in some bold primary color, and it would sit on top of the television, not below it, so that when your neighbor or your friend came over he would spot it immediately and say “Wow, you have on of those Ronco Tape-O-Matics!”

All of this is about creating value for the customer – value that, in the customer’s mind, exceeds “four easy payments of $39.95.” When that happens, the customer buys the product.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how well manufacturing and supply chain issues are taken into account during product development. But just as important is he customer interface.

Take a look at your product development process. How involved are the people who have to sell it? How involved are customers and users who have to use it, maintain it? Do they get to try out their processes on your prototypes as you go? Or are specifications just tossed over the fence for engineers to figure out and turn into what they think is the ideal product?

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