Driving product decisions from the gut David 13 Sep 2005

20 comments Latest by kfsdjfisdjfiosdj

In Time’s article on the iPod Nano, Apple reaffirms their mission to guide instead of follow their customers:

It was a gutsy play, and it came from the gut: unlike almost any other high-tech company, Apple refuses to run its decisions by focus groups.

You can and of course should listen to your customers. But to be able to innovate on their behalf, you need to place an even higher premium on your own vision.

20 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Brad 13 Sep 05

That’s great. Products designed with the input of focus groups always seem to end up like products designed by committee, and it’s nice to see a company prove that successful products can be developed without such a tentative, overly cautious approach.

Bill Cosby said it best: “I don’t know about the secret to success, but the secret to failure lies in trying to please everybody.”

Marko Samastur 13 Sep 05

Focus group IS a comittee. It just might be a tad more focused than your average one.

Robert Brook 13 Sep 05

Surely there are others ways to “listen to your customers” than focus groups?

Matt 13 Sep 05

I have to wonder what is so gutsy? I imagine much of the feedback and reviews apple had were as follows:

Mini: Nice features, like the smaller size, better price point

Shuffle: Excellent small size, solid state memory is nice, better batter life, where the heck is the screen

Now we see the nano which is the best of both. Bigger solid state memory storage, small form factor, nice color screen and a good price point (well, for apple).

From the article: “Not very many companies are bold enough to shoot their best-selling product at the peak of its popularity”

I guess I just read this totally different. They improved their best selling product, thus enabling them to sell more. It was renamed, which I think was a bit confusing for some, but what is innovative beyond that from a marketing stand point?

Don’t get me wrong, the technical merits of the product are beyond belief, but there is nothing grand about their decision in doing this.

Mathew Patterson 13 Sep 05

They improved their best selling product, thus enabling them to sell more. It was renamed, which I think was a bit confusing for some

The biggest impact would be on 3rd part manufacturers - the change of shape and connection size from the mini. That is a big call, stop selling a product that is so well supported.

Alan 13 Sep 05

Isn’t it a little early to declare the nano a “success”? It’s only been out a few weeks, and while it’s more technically impressive than the mini (smaller, color screen), it’s unclear if it will sell as well as the mini over the long haul.

Dale Wolf 13 Sep 05

It is my experience that customers can tell you about their unmet needs … the places where they have pain or hopes. But customers are not the best source for innovation, or they would have solved their own pains and hopes. Innovation does come from your vision, culture and the imagination to see some new way of meeting customer’s unmet needs and hopes.

Research and development (especially the R of R&D) is the planned process for innovation. Some of which is aimed at say sending man to the moon, but spins off along the way hundreds of useful commercial inventions … rather than the more prodigious R such as in pharmaceutical research.

Then there is the type of serendipitous innovation where we create something new to the world, that no one expected and no one knew they needed.

But, you get no disagreement from me, that despite the hard core fact that we are living in a customer-centric world, customers are not good at helping us invent solutions … especially, most especially focus groups (they are better at killing good ideas than creating them).

Christopher Fahey 13 Sep 05

Reality check: Anyone wonder if Apple might be practicing a little press manipulation here?

I wonder if Apple’s assertion that they don’t listen to focus groups is similar to President Bush’s assertion that they don’t listen to polls: that is, it’s probably a flat-out lie.

Maybe Apple doesn’t call them “focus groups”, maybe they do them in a different way than the textbooks say to do them, maybe they do their research very discreetly in order to maintain their very effective strategy of developing and launching products in total secrecy… But the notion that they only design and market new products “from the gut”, without extensively testing products and prototypes or speaking to consumers during the design process, is almost certainly just another example of Apple continuing to build the Apple mythology that they have a tiny team of naturally talented designers (with Steve Jobs as the da Vinci-like lead designer) who intuitively get everything right every time.

And regarding Apple’s gutsy business decisions, everyone always knew that the Shuffle wasn’t so much a triumph of design as a triumph of marketing: the right price point, the right brand, the right marketing “spin” on it’s clear deficiency of features. Also, the Shuffle was deliberately intended to be a demographic marketing wedge, to open up the low end market to the Apple brand. The idea that the Shuffle wasn’t a product of focus groups and extensive market research is ludicrous. Apple’s designers are awesome, and their market researchers are equally awesome. That’s Apple’s strength.

They also have the best PR machine around. Does anyone remember all those stories, obviously a pile of exaggeration and hype, about a supposed trend among urbanites where strangers would jack their iPod headphones into each others’ iPods on the street or on subways? The public swallows that stuff from/about Apple hook line and sinker, no matter how preposterous the tale. Apple is totally awesome, but I’m not so starry-eyed that I need to swallow their “Genius, Inc.” propaganda every single time.

Matt 13 Sep 05

I totally agree that customers should guide your vision, not make product decisions, but I hardly see this being a good example of that. I mean… they made it smaller and in color. That’s hardly innovation. That’s like a car maker saying “what if we made it faster and better on gas?”.

Mathew Patterson 13 Sep 05

The idea that the Shuffle wasnít a product of focus groups and extensive market research is ludicrous.

Christopher,I generally agree with you, but the original post and the article are quite specifically talking about the Nano.

I seriously doubt you could have found a focus group that would come up with dropping the most sucessful product on the market.

Pointer 13 Sep 05

I think the point is that they’re quite literally the only company that’s doing what they do. No other company has such a devotion to quality design. They all would rather use the proven-bad concept of the focus group to dictate virtually every aspect of the product (Why would you trust the most important decisions about your product to a bunch of strangers?), and then “Apple-it-up” by trying to copy whatever Apple is doing. Did anybody use white plastic on an MP3 player before the iPod?

Sure, they’ve got a valuable brand, but they didn’t get it through PR and marketing, they got it through working hard and working smart. A bit like 37signals, I think.

Matt (2) 13 Sep 05

“I seriously doubt you could have found a focus group that would come up with dropping the most successful product on the market.”

I don’t think focus groups care about business decisions, but I’ll go ahead and agree with this point. I would however say that a focus group would come up with improving a product Mini + smaller + solid state memory + color screen = Good!

It is not dropping a product category when the original product is replaced with a more improved product. To extend the earlier auto example. I can’t believe VW dropped their styling on the Jetta and came out with a new style for the Jetta with much improved features during this year (name remains the same, but you get the drift). How could they change their most successful product? Because any business that wants to stay profitable keeps improving.

Christopher Fahey 13 Sep 05

Matthew, there are lots of good reasons to discontinue a successful product, and a lot of this insight could very well have come right out of focus groups and market research. Perhaps focus groups overwhelmingly preferred the Nano to the Mini 10-to-1 (which would not be surprising given its almost across the board superiority); Perhaps research has shown that iPod users frequently buy another iPod when new models come out; Perhaps discontinuing the Mini allows them to make more money off of new accessories that only work with the Nano (I’d bet that Apple makes more % profit on the accessories than on the iPods); Perhaps the Mini wasn’t very profitable in the first place due to certain hardware constraints that have been solved in the Nano, a possibility supported by stories that Apple managed to secure a great deal on the memory chips.

Finally, when you have a new, clearly superior product that directly competes with an existing product, it’s just plain stupid to keep selling the old model — a waste of tons of marketing, packaging, production, and support overhead. It’s really not as risky as it sounds.

I doubt the decision to discontinue the Mini was made without the assistance of lots and lots of market research and number crunching. The final decision, like any new product launch decision, took guts, true, but I’m sure it was based mostly on some pretty good research.

That’s my point: Guts are no replacement for research. Good research, plus the guts to do something that seems risky, plus some luck, equals success. David’s original post indeed makes this point, but the Time article most certainly does not.

Mathew Patterson 13 Sep 05

Finally, when you have a new, clearly superior product that directly competes with an existing product, itís just plain stupid to keep selling the old model ó a waste of tons of marketing, packaging, production, and support overhead.

Sure, but in the situation Apple was in, you know that some other companies would have milked the Ipod mini cash cow for years, and spent nothing on developing a new product.

This is the difference - do you have enough guts to throw away guaranteed money for something you think is better.

kmilden 13 Sep 05

I have to believe that Apple doesn’t really listen to its customers. They make the best stuff maybe there is something to that. People really don’t know what they want. You have to show them.

If Apple listened then you would of saw and FM tuner in a iPod long ago. An Apple PDA, and a host of other products people have been discussing for a long time.

John "Z-Bo" Zabroski 14 Sep 05

Building to throw away is an important part of successful engineering. Failure is a resource.

Also, Agreeing something is a failure is not the same as Understanding something is a failure. So, failure is a gray area when you are speaking about something that is not pure science. A good article, Pure Science and Applied Science: What’s the Difference?, can be found here: http://www.scienceandyou.org/articles/ess_09.shtml

Samuel 22 Sep 05

Very rightly written article, it arrests the attention of the reader. The subject is outlined with clear understanding and focus.

kfsdjfisdjfiosdj 31 Oct 05

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