Customer Needs Assessment
Can you clearly define the problem your product concept addresses, the solution it offers, and to whom it would have most value?
Technology-based R&D within mature corporations often is driven by a need to gain leadership or to remain competitive in a particular industry sector or product area. Even though corporate marketing managers, scientists and engineers are close to their customer base and rarely make significant mistakes in product introductions, they tend to focus more on incremental, improvement-oriented advancements within existing product platforms.
Sometimes, however, “startup” companies will excitedly enter a market with a product that does not generate the expected customer enthusiasm.
Too often, high technology ventures are unsuccessful due not to technical failures...
Failures often occur because the intended customer needs were so ill-defined that a product was designed that too few customers actually wanted.
Even minor misunderstandings of the user requirements of targeted customers, if discovered too late, could delay product development and launch timing, and affect the ability to raise money when it’s most needed.
Contemporary Teaching on Technology Commercialization:
Conduct early customer definition and needs assessment, and follow with iterative rounds of design challenge and customer validation — throughout the product development cycle!
This basic philosophy can be applied (with less vigor) within the university setting during the product /customer definition stage, prior to significant investment in prototype development.
Challenges for University Researchers
Within universities, new product ideas often begin with researchers evaluating potential new applications of one or more recently described core technologies (theirs or other’s inventions). The new core technology could have potential for significant performance-enhancing advancements in a multitude of areas, some of which may apply to areas of application within the inventors’ own experience base. Sometimes the university inventor is actually the acknowledged expert in a particular field. When this is the case, less external user input may be needed to guide initial prototyping goals.
One problem for university researchers is when ideas for new technology application lead them into industry sectors and product areas in which they have no prior experience…
This is a circumstance where product prototyping often “runs ahead of itself” and, due to insufficient information, advances too far along a path that is to varying degrees off-course.
This often leads to researcher discouragement when industry representatives or potential investors react to a prototype demonstration with little enthusiasm.
Sometimes, the basic features and user interface embodiment is close enough to the market needs that, with encouragement, the researcher will step back, invest more prototyping time and salvage the opportunity. However, when the overall market needs are missed so badly that the embedded technology itself is heavily discounted by potential licensees or investors, the project often receives diminishing support from the associated faculty member.
It’s well appreciated that faculty are primarily incentivized to teach students and to conduct and publish research, all the while faced with the never-ending pursuit of research grant funding to support grad students and laboratory operations. This competition for time, energy and funds forces choices that sometimes leads to abandonment of support for projects that may continue to hold technological promise.
The solution to minimizing these prototyping “near misses”…
Additional Challenges ⇒ Medical Product Innovations
Somewhat unique to the medical field is the challenge associated with identifying all stakeholders who would be affected by the adoption of a prospective new product or service, and subsequently to accurately characterize and address their respective needs.
Example: If you were developing a new surgical tool, determining the needs of the intended primary user (Surgeon) may be straightforward; however, it could be a mistake not to consider the needs of other surgical team members (e.g., Anesthesiologist and Scrub Nurse team) who could potentially be negatively affected by the new tool, and resist its adoption. It would also be wise in such a situation to consider the potential impact on related hospital service providers (e.g., Sterilization and Biomedical Engineering services).
It's not unusual for innovative solutions to require significant changes in institutional workflow patterns...
When such changes affect other individuals or departments who may not receive corresponding benefit from the innovation, don’t underestimate the potential resistance to its adoption.
An even more difficult challenge occurs when an innovation potentially supports a shift in the delivery of a component of healthcare from one provider class to another (e.g., surgical tools that might encourage Interventional Radiologists or Cardiologists to expand their practices more deeply into the realm of the Surgeon). The challenge for the innovator in such cases may be having to make a choice among customer segments with whom they will be aligned, and others (along with their professional associations) who may oppose them.
Last, but certainly not least, is the determination of the needs of the payers (Medicare and private insurers) within the healthcare reimbursement system who will determine whether or not your new product meets their criteria for clinical utility and cost-effectiveness. Your intended user cannot purchase the product if there is no payment code or coverage established for it. For more information on this subject, visit Medical Product Reimbursement
The information above is provided to familiarize university-based researchers with certain elements of customer needs assessment that are relatively unique to the medical field, an insight that may be helpful in future product design considerations, as well as in research collaborations or licensing discussions with industry representatives.
If you are developing a medical device, you may be interested in the related concept of “biodesign”…
This refers to the Stanford University Byers Center program that trains medical researchers and prospective entrepreneurs in the process of thorough “clinical needs assessment and validation” ─ prior to the initiation of activities associated with prototyping or business modeling.
Through this website link you can review the program content or purchase this 2nd edition of the textbook BIODESIGN: The Process of Innovating Medical Technologies, authored by Yock, Zenios and Makower.
The ebiodesign.org website is a companion to the 2nd edition and provides readers supplemental content to the textbook.
Within a university setting, how do you go about conducting customer and market research?
Interviewing Potential Customers
If you have no prior experience in a particular field of application, it simply takes time to identify potential product “users ” (job functions) within an industry where your product concept might be applicable.
Example: If you can’t initially find someone with industry knowledge who could help shortcut this process, you might start by conducting “key word” internet searches until you learn enough to narrow down the profile and titles of potential users, along with companies who participate in that particular market. With that information in hand, one suggestion (from Talking to Humans reference below) is to run searches on LinkedIn® to identify a starting list of interview candidates, who you might be able to reach through the contact information provided.
In the easy-to-read (and free) publication entitled Talking to Humans, author Giff Constable describes in an entertaining fashion the importance of the customer interview as part of the needs assessment (a.k.a. customer discovery, or customer development) process.
Customer needs assessment is about learning, and possibly confirming assumptions, but not selling…
Take best advantage of customer interview opportunities by keeping the discussion directed toward your understanding of their workflow patterns and behavior— without leading them too much toward the particular solution you have in mind.
The following Constable quotes and Tom Fishburne cartoon are particularly relevant to university researchers in high technology settings:
“Customers are too constrained by their current reality to design effective solutions. It is the customer’s job to explain their behavior, goals, and challenges. It is the product designer’s job to come up with the best solution.”
“Ask your questions about behavior and challenges first, so that the
discussion about product features does not poison or take over the
conversation. People do love talking features!”
“People are trained not to call your baby ugly. You need to make them feel safe to do this. Ask them up-front to be brutally honest, and explain that it is the very best way for them to help you.”
From your reading about the state-of-the-art within a particular industry, you should already have a good sense of the areas of need your technology might address, but before you approach an interviewee you should be well-rehearsed with your questions, so as not to waste their time. At the same time, you should encourage your interviewee to provide as much detail as they are willing.
As stated before, you will need to construct questions that yield important information, while trying not to lead your subject to the response you would like to hear. Open-ended questions tend to encourage honesty, but questions that are overly vague can also create impatience and frustration for the interviewee in the process. You should set out to interview several individuals. Your questions will evolve, and you will become more confident as you gather experience.
Another Talking to Humans quote …
“While people are willing to grant time to polite people who ask for advice, you have an extra advantage if you are a student or academic researcher. “
Example line of questioning:
- Q: If you could improve your current product or service, in what general area of performance would that be?
- Q: Could you be more specific about that (answer)?
- Q: Are you saying that, if you could do this and that, you would see an advantage in a particular area?
- Q: As a user, how would you personally benefit from that particular improvement?
- Q: Could a particular solution affect, in a negative fashion, the workflow of other individuals?
- Q: Would such an improvement be seen as valuable to others in your organization?
- Q: Which job positions within your organization are responsible for purchase decisions regarding a product such as this?
If your interview goes well, you will have developed a valuable resource for follow-up discussions over time, and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for a referral to other interview candidates.
The information you gain, from conducting multiple interviews of this nature, will help prepare you better for the investment you will be making in prototype development, and will guide you toward a more realistic proof-of-concept demonstration plan. And, it will also establish a good starting point toward business model selection and validation should you be contemplating a startup venture to commercialize your technology.
For potential information sources for industry and market-oriented research categories, see Market Research.