In business, we all sell something. We may have a great product that has done well in the past but needs updating, or we may be looking for new product lines to grow. Whatever the case may be, the key to creating a great product is to find out what your customer wants and needs and make it for them.
I’ve thought about this often – producing the type of invention that will be just the right combination of features our customers need. My company is a real estate development firm, and we construct apartment and office buildings. Before we launch a new project, we tweak it and modify it until we are confident that we have the best possible design. Our customers and whether they buy it or not, however, are the ultimate judges.
As part of our building design, we are continually finding out who our customer is and what he or she wants. We perform surveys and hire market researchers; we also prepare our research reports. Market research is key to understanding the market we are in as well as trying to predict what direction it is likely to follow.
I find market research to be more of an art than a science. Numbers paint a picture, but it is not always precise. The data, for example, may indicate a demand, and you may extrapolate those values to see how many of your products you can sell, but at the end of the day, it might not work the way you expected.
Market research, by definition, looks at the past. Sometimes you have to give the customer something they are not even expecting.
“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, A faster horse!’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
– Steve Jobs
Although I believe in the importance of research, I like the spirit of Steve Jobs’ quote. There are products that people may have never seen or which they cannot imagine because they have not been created. Understanding the underlying need and what they like or don’t like may provide clues for that future product.
Finally, market research doesn’t just happen in research reports, you can do it every day. You can improve your knowledge by paying attention to feedback. At Celaque, my company, we listen through our surveys and feedback. We are always open to hearing from our clients and other partners. As we look, we learn more and integrate as many good ideas as we can into our designs.
Some products have shorter production lead times and others much longer. If your product is in the first category, it may be easier to iterate with small quantities until you find the right blend of design and price. In real estate, we do not have the luxury of experimenting once we have started construction – once you build a building, it’s there for many years. Changing it is difficult at best.
One way to leave room for iteration when we design is that we create flexible spaces. For office space, people can buy/lease smaller or larger units. If something is not selling as we expected it to, we find ways to alter our product.
If necessary, we change uses, so instead of aiming to sell, we’ll lease. We have also experimented with leasing for shorter periods and with including furniture in the rent. If all else fails, there is always the price, which we can tweak as we notice fluctuations in demand. Then the cycle repeats. We work on creating a better product in the future.
Ultimately, we do the best we can, but the market is the most critical judge. If people buy it, it’s because we designed what they wanted and needed. If it sells, it worked, and if it doesn’t, it didn’t – there is some discrepancy between their expectations and our product. As part of the design team, I can tell you this can be very hard to accept, especially if you have put your heart into what you produced. Nevertheless, in order to design a better product in the future, we listen, we learn, and we do it again and again.