Design products for customer flow


When designing a new product, start with customer flow and teardown.

When I sit on in product design meetings, most of the discussion is about how to make this or that function work and how to assemble the functions so that the product works overall, at a hoped for level of performance, quality and cost.

This ensures you have a product on the store’s shelf – but will it be a product customers will buy?

Every purchase is a choice. For instance, personally, for my morning coffee I can:

  • Use my capsule machine for a quick espresso
  • Use a dose of instant coffee for a mug of watered-down American coffee
  • Go to the café down the street for a sit down café and croissant

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Each of these experiences compete against each other, and then various capsule machines compete against each other, various brands of instant coffee, and I’m blessed with several cafés within easy walking distance from my home.

Each of these experiences make me work before I can taste my fist sip of coffee:

  • With the capsule machine I have o find the right capsule (which can be a mentally taxing task early in the morning), make sure the machine has water, find where to turn it on (okay, it’s morning…) put the capsule in and the cup on and push the button.
  • With the instant, I need to put the kettle on boil water, find the packet, open it (aaaargh!), pour it into a mug, add the hot water and stir.
  • To have a relaxed café and croissant, I need to get vaguely dressed and walk down the street, say hi to the guys at the café and order one.

Each of these experiences has a very different flow – they offer different benefits and different obstacles. The key thing here is to realize that no product solves a customer problem in absolues. If I’m designing a new capsule machine, I’m competing with both existing capsule machines and other ways of getting a coffee fix.

In starting with product design, you will unavoidably jump into various technical problems. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but early on take a step back and ask yourselves:

  • Which product am I competing against?
  • Which alternative way of doing this am I competing again?
  • What kind of flow do these alternatives offer to customers?
  • How do they technically make this flow happen?

For instance, what does the customer first see when using the product? Which part do they first touch? Where do they struggle? Why? How can the experience flow more sweetly?

There are three starting points I can see on the gemba for product design:

  • Marketing: what audience do we want to capture and design the product from scratch to do so?
  • Existing products: what performance/quality/cost (mainly cost) issues we need to solve on our current product to make it more competitive or profitable?
  • Teardown: which specific product are we competing against and how can we lure customers away from it towards ours?

All three are valid and worthwhile, but from what I’ve see, the most creative in the end is the one that seems to be the least: orienting to a specific competitor and trying to offer a more alluring alternative.

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