Editor’s note: Ross Teague, Ph.D., is Manager of Design Research and Senior Human Factors Psychologist, at HumanCentric Technologies. The Human Factor is a regular weekly feature in Local Tech Wire.
_______________________________________________________________________________________Do you know who really uses your products or services?

This is a vital question to answer in understanding the varying types of people who come in contact with your product and, by extension, your company. There have been numerous books written on the process of pinpointing your customers, gauging their desires and needs, communicating this internally within your company, and injecting that information into your product development process.

We often tend to focus on minor customer segments, causing us to overlook inspiration and innovation sources for creating a greater experience for all segments.

Understanding the reaction to your product through the eyes of all customer types provides you with numerous important insights.

Novices: You only get one chance to make a first impression. This is as true in life as it is with products. A user’s experience with your product will often determine whether or not they will speak highly of it or invest the time to familiarize themselves with your product and its benefits.

Every attempt should be made to understand what your customer’s expectations are, what your product can do for them, and how it fits into their current environment. Exceeding expectations is a great thing, but if you fail and your product creates customer dissonance, it is going to be rejected. In addition to understanding new users, you need to evaluate their reactions to the product and how easy it is for them to set up and/or use it.

Experienced Users: We like to think that people who historically use our products continue to do so because they enjoy using them and find them easy to use. We often find that this is not the case, and people maintain their use of a product for reasons outside of their scope of control (i.e. – mandated by the company, sunk costs, unaware of other options), but they speak poorly of your product and create disparity between actual and intended brand image. It is important for all regular user types to provide insight, not exclusively those you consider ‘ideal’.

Competitive Product Users: Find those who do not currently use your products and talk to them, without trying to pitch them your product. It is a good idea to find an independent third party to talk to these folks, so that it can be done anonymously. You might assume you know why they do not use your product, but the more competitive product users you talk to, the more you will get to the core of the issue.

When commencing a product development project, we often recommend that clients conduct a ‘competitive product evaluation’. Many clients have already done this, and they then create nice feature/functionality matrices and attempt to match or exceed their competitor’s competencies. A couple of assumptions are inherent here:

  • Your competitors know what your market wants and

  • Playing “what you can do, I can do better” is the best strategy for addressing your customer’s needs. More important is how people use your products, and those of your competitors, to accomplish the same task. This starts with knowing what people are trying to accomplish, specific to tasks and goals.
  • The Fringe Element: Here is an easy way to identify product innovations and/or marketing opportunities. First, conduct a thorough study of the range of user types for your products, and pick out a few “anomalies”. Maybe they use your product to complete unintended activities, perhaps they have found ways to enhance and/or adapt the product, or maybe they use the product in environments you never expected. Find those people and get to know them. Do not treat them as outsiders; treat them as part of your research and development staff that you do not have to pay! These fringe cases offer innovative new product ideas, markets, and/or uses for your product.

    The Bottom Line

    Describing how to collect feedback from all these different customer types is an article unto itself, but in short, many well-used methods for collecting customer input will work here. Interviews and ‘apprentice-mentor’ conversations to have users ‘teach’ you how to use your product are extremely valuable.

    Usability testing is a key element in these types of evaluations, especially in understanding how people initially interact with your product and for comparing your products versus competitors. The creation of a rotating expert panel, comprised of users, is an excellent way to understand what they are experiencing at different points in the product use life cycle.

    It is human nature to want to talk to those who like us or are familiar to us, but product development and customer service benefits when we expand from our normal, comfortable bounds and talk with a wide variety of customer (and non-customer) types.

    Ross Teague, Manager of Design Reseach and Senior Human Factors Psychologist for HumanCentric Technologies (www.humancentrictech.com ).

    He provides what he calls ‘informed inspiration’ for companies that truly innovate. With a doctorate in Applied Cognition and Human Factors, Ross claims to have the best job in the world. Where else can you make your living by putting yourself in other people’s shoes? Ross brings user and product insight to life. He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or rteague@humancentrictech.com.