The Internet, and social media in particular, have made it possible for companies to establish new, much closer contacts with their customers and experts within their product areas. Whereas 20 years ago, dialogue with customers took place primarily through focus groups and market research, today we have the opportunity to maintain an ongoing conversation with our customers and the people who use our products daily and show an interest in them. There are hundreds of free platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that enable us to immediately get our users involved. The challenge isn’t the technology, but rather the sociological, human and business-related aspects of how we create user involvement and employ it to the benefit of the company.
Four years ago, I was sitting in a small flat in Barcelona’s harbour district writing my book on social media, Den perfekte storm (The Perfect Storm). Even though I was far from home, I was in daily contact with 150 experts who helped me 24 hours a day to improve and develop the content of my book. And best of all, it didn’t cost me anything. All the experts worked for free and they even helped me market and promote the book when it was published six months later.
When we talk about user involvement, it’s important to differentiate between two objectives: the development of the company’s products and the marketing of the company’s products. The two are very closely related and rarely separated in real life. However, it’s important to understand that they are two distinct objectives. In this post, I will focus on user involvement as a product development strategy, while in the next post in this series you can read about user involvement as a marketing strategy.
Let’s look at the website ideas.lego.com. LEGO customers can visit this site and upload photos and videos of Lego models they have built, big and small. Other users can then vote for the models and if a model reaches 10,000 votes, it proceeds to an internal LEGO review process to assess the feasibility of putting it into production. If it gets put into production, the LEGO builder receives royalties from the product’s sales.
LEGO is a prime example of a company that truly understands the value of involving their highly engaged customers in the process of developing new products. And there are many advantages to user involvement as a product development strategy. Let’s look at five of them:
1. You save money
LEGO has, of course, invested in the platform that allows people to submit their ideas. However, all the creativity and ideas are free, which means that in the long term LEGO can reduce their internal costs for product development and innovation.
2. You get more ideas
By involving real customers, the company gets much greater breadth in their product development. An in-house development department can easily get stuck in a rut developing many variations on the same product. Involving thousands of users is a great way to ensure a high volume and wide range of different ideas.
3. You get good ideas
When users can see each other’s proposals, they automatically start to challenge and inspire each other. This boosts creativity in relation to product development – including on the company’s in-house development team.
4. You get potentially unlimited growth
In a business context, user involvement can have a significant impact on the company’s scalability, and that potential is quite tangible. The company becomes a facilitator, enabling users all over the world to submit products. Just look at Facebook, Airbnb and Uber – they are all companies that went global very quickly because they left the product development up to their users.
5. You get products that meet actual needs
Products developed by users are generally much closer to the actual needs of the customers. You can conduct all the focus groups and market surveys you want, but a product developed by real users is bound to meet a real customer need.
With all the advantages of user involvement, perhaps it’s not so strange that many companies have enthusiastically embarked on this new product development strategy. However, the results have been somewhat mixed. Many companies never experience the advantages of involving users in the product development process and others even experience some seriously negative consequences. Let’s look at some of the challenges of working with user involvement – and the requirements your products ought to live up to:
1. Do your product developers correspond to your target group?
A couple of years ago, a Danish ice cream company tried to use their Facebook followers to develop a new ice cream. However, the only problem was that their Facebook followers were by no means representative of the Danish population. So when the new ice cream came onto the market, it may have been perfect for the company’s 20,000 Facebook followers, but it was of absolutely no interest to the general population. When working with user involvement, it’s important to remember that the final product isn’t necessarily representative of all your customers’ preferences – or even of the majority of your target group. That’s why user involvement isn’t always the right strategy for customers aiming at a mass market. Instead, it’s more appropriate for companies targeting many niche markets at the same time.
2. Is your product too boring?
A classic problem is that customers simply aren’t interested in being part of product development. Many products are quite boring, which can make it difficult for companies to get their customers involved in the product development process. In other words, a product needs to be relatively “sexy” for it to make sense to work with user involvement.
3. Do you plan on listening?
Many companies want to involve users, but when it comes down to it, they can’t find a way to implement the users’ input in practice. This is often directly related to how the company is organised and their professional pride. The company’s in-house product developers lack the motivation to listen to input from the outside. Many suffer from a “Not-Invented-Here complex”, viewing everything that comes from the outside as inferior and irrelevant to the company.
4. Could it be too costly and time consuming?
If you don’t keep tight reins on the user involvement process, you could end up with a flood of product ideas from customers, where 99.9% are of no interest whatsoever. Finding the needle in the haystack can be extremely time consuming and costly – but it can also turn out to be well worth the investment.
5. Are your customers visionary?
Henry Ford is quoted as saying that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. Generally, people are not particularly innovative, because they tend to think only about their own immediate needs and are rarely able to visualise megatrends. Companies like Apple don’t work with user involvement because they design products that the users don’t realise they need yet.
In short, user involvement is not a guaranteed recipe for success. It requires careful consideration and understanding of the company’s unique situation, markets and customers. In the next post in this series, you can read more about user involvement as a marketing strategy, while the third and final post in the series will provide concrete advice on how to get started.