I have a screen ... now what?

-February 01, 2013

Having just concluded the holiday season, I am sure many of you are vegetating on a comfortable couch and reflecting back upon the highly efficient process by which you selected and assembled the presents you gave. The vast majority of you probably selected a cardboard box first that met your budget, and then narrowed your shopping options based upon what would fit inside that magical box. Right? No?? Of course not. That behavior seems so ludicrous that your family might consider medical intervention.

Figure 1: Selecting the wrong hardware up front will cost you more than a few pennies.

Yet, this analogy closely matches the process of ~90% of corporations that have awoken to the explosion of touchscreens in the market and are seeking to define their product's user experience via embedded hardware. They pick the hardware based upon a budget driven by corporate goals, and then figure out what features may be added or (more likely) subtracted to fit within the capabilities of that processor, display, voice engine, etc. To delve into this further, let's go through three fallacies that most product owners believe, and then talk about the solution.

The Nebulous Marketplace
Probably the #1 mistake made amongst these sophomoric managers is to fix a Bill of Materials up front, but it's a well-baited bear trap. Why?

The typical program starts out like this: Marketing says "I need the next ground-breaking, eye-popping, brain-melting widget that'll include this laundry list of 'features' that'll make us competitive, and the market says the target price should be approximately $X." So the well-intentioned engineer looks at the required ingredients to provide those features, does a thumb-to-the-wind estimate on the parts and services that'll stay under the cost ceiling, creates a Request for Quote (RFQ), and sources the suppliers based upon a Statement of Work.

So here's the problem: the product's price is based upon demand (Econ 101, folks ... I'm not making this up), and the demand is based upon how well the consumers' needs are met. But the consumer has never seen a ground-breaking, eye-popping, brain-melting widget, so the price point is truly unknown.

If Henry Ford had created his allowable budget on a faster horse, the automobile would never have been and we'd be using an enhanced grain or a bioengineered, docile cheetah. If Steve Jobs had concocted the iPhone based upon previous cell phones, we'd still be using not-so-smart phones (*my apologies to flip phone owners reading this article).

In addition, some companies set this allowable budget three to five years before their product (e.g., automotive, aerospace). Considering local and global economies change daily, this can drastically affect the long-term success of a project. For instance, a friend of mine started a travel product using the aforementioned flawed process only to emerge in the post-911 travel-economy years later. Nobody wanted to fly, and thus the product was tragically over-designed for the now-reduced travel market.

Hence, the nebulous marketplace should not prognosticate in cement a customer demand or engineering budget at the start of the project.

Featuring the Features
Many parents consider the f-word to be ... well ... you know. Personally, I consider "features" to be the f-word. If I had a dime for every time a marketing person said, "Our rivals have these features, so we must include them to be competitive," I'd be golfing in Florida right now.

Why does that singular word evoke such extreme emotional responses? Features are typically divorced from the future (or current!) consumer, and are the lazy/cheap man's market research.

For instance, at the publishing of this article, I can say with high confidence that all toasters have a mechanical lever that positions the desired food and engages the heating element. Does that mean all future toasters must have the lever feature?

What if I could say "toast bagels" into my phone as I'm rising from bed (or driving home ... hands-free, of course), and, akin to the automatic icemaker, the refrigerator downstairs spits out my warm breakfast minutes later? How much would you pay for that?! If the marketer assumed upfront that a mechanical lever was a must-have feature, that breakthrough implementation would never be considered.

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