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Listen to Your Customers

Here’s a connect-the-dots exercise:

  • Design-focused companies have outperformed the S&P 500 index by 228 percent in the last decade.
  • In a recent CNN product design survey, two of the top ten product designs in the last century — according to design experts — were from Apple, a company soon to be worth a trillion dollars.
  • A recent Arena survey found ease-of-use to be the number one reason they chose us over other PLM solutions.

So, what’s the connection?

Good design processes lead to easy-to-use products, which translates to customer satisfaction, which inevitably results in business success. But what defines good design processes in the first place? Putting the customer first by using your ears.

Listen to your customers and learn their stories and struggles. Observing, listening to, and empathizing with people are keys to success in business.

When I worked at a large database company, I interviewed several of our customers, who shared similar stories of why they chose our solution; however, one of our company’s stakeholders became angry at these customers’ feedback. “These customers’ stories are not consistent with our marketing message!” he replied.

This was a shocking example of a person who not only refused to listen to customers but invalidated them. Ultimately, the stakeholder’s lack of empathy failed the business and led to his undoing.

Your customers are telling you what your company’s products and marketing message should be. How could you not listen to them?

Many companies develop products in a vacuum, without customer feedback. Smart companies keep in contact with customers throughout the iteration, prototyping and testing process.

You would think listening to customers would be obvious, but it was only when Stanford slapped the “Design Thinking” label on this commonsense approach to product design that companies started putting customers first.

Now, more software companies have fine-tuned their product development and design processes by keeping the customer in the loop. Of course, the best-case scenario of empathetic product design is when your designers ARE the customers.

Steve Jobs designed products by first putting himself in the shoes of the customer and user. This is a better approach than having engineers and designers create products for someone over the horizon that they don’t know or see. When your designers are the users they design products that they want to use.

The success of Arena and Apple share much in common.

I have consulted with some of the biggest names in high tech, and if I could share five key design tips that resulted in product success, it would be these:

1.   Commit to a simple aesthetic

2.   Pay great attention to detail

3.  Push for intuitiveness and user-friendliness

4.   Design for future scalability

5.   Promote a culture where design is a continuous process

On the other hand, the biggest reason I discovered for product failure was — as you could guess — not involving customers in the design process.

Surprise, surprise.

Some software tools can be as confusing as an Escher staircase, making you wonder if they ever got input from a single customer. Sometimes intuitive design is lost in complexity, in tools clearly designed to make money by appealing to the largest cross section of customers possible, but is this a sustainable business practice? I doubt it.

The ultimate point is this: Don’t have your designers design for a technology or to make money— have them design for the user. Great companies design products that people actually want.