Discovering needs

This blog is an edited version of my earlier blog post ‘Customer focus vs market focus‘. Explicit focus on market and customer is primarily from the purpose of discovering all possible needs. So i left it appropriate to change the title and made some additions to make the article relevant to discovering of needs.

Since the blog posts belong to a series of articles on ‘A pragmatic guide for product roadmapping’, i am providing links to previous blogs on the series:

1st part – A practical guide to product roadmap – What is product roadmap?

2nd part – Why product roadmap?

3rd part – Pragmatic purpose of product roadmap

Discovering needs

Roadmap is not just a discreet collection of product requirements; it is indeed an entire gamut of unmet/untold/underserved needs translated into product requirements. The foundation for evolving product that would be embraced by the target market and does not decline prematurely rests on effectively formulating product roadmap with right set of requirements prioritized at right time intervals. Well-orchestrated discovery of all possible needs through understanding and anticipating customer business challenges, pain points and outcomes, later converting those needs into product requirements is the ideal starting point for a well-crafted product roadmap.

Discover of customer focused needs

Product Manager should be all ears while talking with customers to grasp their business challenges and pain points. ‘Listen to your customers’ is age old adage that is followed by every business and I am not advocating doing anything differently. I am just trying to emphasis that Product Manager should both listen and understand customer needs, but (s)he do not let customers decide the contents of their product roadmap. In the sense, Product Manager do not let customer dictate what features to develop, instead Product Manager will let customers focus on their business challenges (needs) and the Product Manager (in collaboration with development team) should derive the optimal solution that would address business challenges of customers. Otherwise customers do not think twice to dump the product that contains exactly what they asked for the product that optimally addresses their business challenges (needs). Even in case of customer outlining the expected outcome, Product Manager has to thoroughly analyze the outcome and propose other viable alternatives on need basis.

On the related context, I want to quote the words of Henry Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Ford while listening to his customers understood their innate needs of travelling quickly from A à B. Please read the related earlier blog post (Requirements has to be understood, not queried). So understanding customer untold/unmet needs along with explicit needs is critical to evolve the product roadmap. Yet does listening and understanding customer needs alone would suffice? Before I go any further let me clarify my definition of customer focus, “CUSTOMER FOCUS embodies everything that product attempts to understand and address unmet/untold/underserved needs of existing customers of the product”.

Discovery of market focused needs

I believe I talked about it umpteen times in my earlier blog posts that most of the customer business challenges are short term and could only trigger incremental changes to the product. The pitfalls of listening and understanding the customer is that someone might suddenly pop-up disrupting the entire market with new technology or new offering and customers might not think twice to switch sides. While it is required to keep focused on existing customers, it is also essential listening to the market to dodge strategic inflection point by understanding the factors that might cause product decline. Market is no different from customers and indeed market is a generic representation of broader segment of customers. So when I insist on market focus, I was looking forward to construct generic representation of the entire customer segment and start assessing how their needs will evolves with changes in dependent macro factor.

At tactical level, it always augur well to look at every individual customer needs to ensure steady flow of revenue but at strategic level while Product Manager has to envision how the product will evolve, (s)he has to create a mental map of how the generic needs of the broader segment of customer evolves and how they will probably respond to new technology innovations or any products in adjacency space that can address the needs of customers. Sometimes the idea is to go beyond the boundaries of the existing product, and customer to identify or grasp what is changing outside and build a mental map of how those changes might alter the customer behavior. To be more precise, in case of market focus, I was rather thinking more strategically to ponder over the long term evolution of the market needs or long term relevance of the product due to changes in market/technology or customer behaviors through explicitly pondering over the following

  • Attacking growth – If it is a growing market, there should be conscious effort to identify who is contributing to the growth and lay plans to capture it?
  • Capitalizing white space (aka demand generation) – Probably same product but new use-case and new target segment, Product Manager has to look out for such possibility. Otherwise Product Manager has to spot customers trying to use the product differently from its intended use and check if the variation of the product could be built to generate additional demand for the product.
  • Is there any product in the adjoining segment that has the potential to make the current product irrelevant (what Mobiles did to Pager, what Smartphones did to Camera and Navigation Devices)
  • Who are the customers of tomorrow – ISPs were long perceived to be the customers of networking devices not until Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft started buying more networking hardware than anyone else. Not many vendors looked at the later as potential customers. In case of consumer products, the buying patterns or behaviors of Millennials that might constitute significant portion of the target market had to be ascertained and acted accordingly. Their choices might not be the same as existing customers.
  • What are the customer needs of tomorrow – Can we anticipate those needs.
  • Is there any new technology or trends that when not accommodated might cause the product to be irrelevant For instance, impact of virtualization (NFV/SDN) on physical appliance in networking industry or Impact of IoT on industrial products

Anticipate emerging needs

In case of market focus, Product Manager do not merely understand customer needs, (s)he should also anticipate how customer needs will evolve or what new needs will emerge with possible changes to dependent macro factors. Once Product Managers understands the dependent macro factors (such as economy, regulation, internet, technology etc) that can directly or indirectly impact the products, there are 2 kinds of possibilities.

  1. Needs of tomorrow
    • With increased adoption of multiple devices (smartphones, tablets etc) by each user or family, will users start demanding new plans from ISPs?
    • With increased adoption of mobile devices in rural segment and with possibility of decrease in internet connectivity costs, what new needs could emerge (mobile banking? sharing latest farming know-how techniques? sell directly to consumers – eliminate middle?).
    • With the advent of IoT and wide spread adoption of IoT technologies to create smarter homes, what will be the impact to ISPs that provide pipes to carry data (specifically M2M)? How ISPs could monetize the data?
  1. Customers of tomorrow
    • With potential increase in disposable income of millennials, they can be possible target customers for real estate, luxury cars etc. Product Manager has to ascertain whether their needs will be the same as existing customers?

What I have stressed so far is that certain needs will emerge and new customers will also get added to the target segment in future with changes in economy, technology, regulation etc and it is the responsibility of the Product Manager to anticipate both emerging needs and emerging customers.

How far to look into the future

First and foremost, why should Product Manager anticipate, why not address the needs or target new customers after they emerge. Whether to anticipate or just wait until the need emerges primarily rests upon one factor – What is the time frame taken to address the need. If it is really long, then Product Manager has the responsibility to anticipate the needs to get the 1st mover advantage and excite the customers before the competition does. In case of automobile sector where the development cycles are really BIG, Product Manager cannot wait to understand the needs and aspirations of millennials until they start buying cars. It would really tough to answer how far should Product Manager look into the future, I would only insist on the starting point. The starting point is the sum of the time taken to research, develop and validate the product. Since it would be really tough to predict the future, Product Manager could better anticipate possible outcomes of the future through scenario analysis and use lean technique of product development to validate and ascertain which outcome is most likely to occur.

Final thoughts

Guess I have dropped sufficient hints on what I am trying to conclude, the contents of Product Roadmap should be a combination of both market and customer focused needs translated into product requirements. If I had to rephrase my earlier definition of roadmap – “Product Roadmap is indeed a collection of customer and market business challenges, pain points and outcomes translated into product requirements addressed through incremental product enhancements, or incorporating new technology, or building new platform or new product lines”. Ideally product roadmap should focus on both short and long term evolution of the product.

If any of my readers feel that my definition of ‘Market’ and ‘Customer’ is not appropriate, they are utmost welcome to drop me some suggestion at murali.erraguntala@gmail.com. I am definitely in favor of much better alternate terms.

Appreciate your thoughts or opinions

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