Listen Up! How Voice of the Customer Is Changing Product Design

Voice of the customer is one of those buzzwords du jour, lauded in marketing and even software development circles, but not necessarily a high-profile concept for design engineers.

Thanks to a number of technology advances, that’s likely to change. The rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook coupled with a growing obsession with analytics-driven decision making has set the stage for design engineers to gain direct and unprecedented access into how products are being used in the field. These sources also provide invaluable feedback on what customers actually like and don’t like about their products.

This level of visibility will be critical for engineers as customers take the driver’s seat in steering and defining product innovation. With close to 2 billion users now active on social media, engineering organizations have a natural resource for engaging customers to test drive new product concepts and do their own requirements reconnaissance to boost the success rate of new products. That’s a good thing if you buy into research from industry consultants like McKinsey, which peg new product failure rates at between 25% to 45% and the fact that for every seven new product ideas, about four enter development, one and a half are launched, and only one idea is an actual success.

Granted, it’s not like engineers have been completely shut out of the customer feedback loop or have been toiling away without any regard to a formalized set of customer requirements. It’s true that requirements gathering and analysis has been a core pillar of most companies’ design workflows, but the process is typically isolated from engineering, with much of the incoming intelligence filtered through other groups like marketing. These functional areas, which own responsibility for understanding and interpreting customer needs, can’t always effectively communicate their findings in ways that resonate with an engineering audience. And without any first-hand access to customer feedback, engineers are prone to make assumptions, increasing the risk that customers’ real needs and requirements aren’t sufficiently addressed in the early concept stage or even in subsequent product design cycles.

So how can design engineers capitalize on the latest technology advances to get a direct line on customers’ needs? Here are three suggestions:

Harness the power of social media. It’s not just Facebook or Twitter—there is a huge variety of active online forums along with blogs and networking sites through which engineers can tap into collective consumer intelligence and engage with potential customers. A survey by Nielsen found that 58% of folks online spend time discussing service and product issues—not just posting updates of their kids or sharing cute kitty pictures.

A well-thought-out strategy to meld social media context into product design workflows can help engineering groups get feedback from diverse sets of users in critical mass, as opposed to limiting the conversation. Moreover, users feel freer to express their true opinions in the context of social media, and design teams can solicit on-going feedback as opposed to conducting a one-time voice-of-the-customer interview at the beginning of the development process.

Obviously, in order to be successful, this needs to be a coordinated effort—not just one engineer’s random peaks at Facebook or a Twitter feed. But by identifying the right forums and creating the proper integrations to core design platforms like CAD and PLM, engineering organizations can gain a whole new level of insight into customer preferences.

Push existing tools to the max. Traditional 3D CAD tools and processes can make it difficult for non-engineers—heck, even non-CAD engineering users—to participate in early design feedback given the difficulty modifying constraints and dealing with feature-based models. The ability to leverage the wealth of new-ish direct 3D modeling, visualization, and concept design capabilities make it far easier to share formative designs with a broad base of stakeholders, including existing customers and potential new targets. In that way, engineers can more easily and actively solicit and incorporate this feedback into evolving new designs.

Plumb the riches from smart, connected products. Ok, there aren’t tons of smart, connected products out there right now, but there will be. Soon. Whether it’s a smart thermostat or a piece of industrial farm equipment, these sensored products will be communicating gobs and gobs of valuable, real-time data points, which can be collected and sliced and diced to come up with insights that can drive future product designs. Maybe the reveal is that users are only harnessing a fraction of a tractor’s engine capacity, which could result in specing a less expensive, lower power engine in a subsequent model. Perhaps a particular electronics component is continually on the fritz, prompting the engineering team to spec a different module or make a change to a completely different area of the design that is responsible for the repeated failure.

While all of this is relatively new territory, CAD and PLM software vendors are actively looking at ways to evolve their products with integration and analytics capabilities that will allow them to leverage this wealth of product and social intelligence. Engineers definitely need to stay tuned and be ready to tune into the voice of the customer if they are serious about design innovation.