Ground your Member Engagement in Product Development

A new HBR article, How IBM, Intuit, and Rich Products Became More Customer-Centric offers a different approach to customer centricity, hence engagement. It lays out three different and concrete paths for making customer centricity operational, and applies them to the heart of business —product development.   

Why is this important to sectors like associations? Because for most associations, promises of things like member focus and value have neither specific plans for becoming operational, nor measures for evaluating their success. Efforts at achieving them usually mean add-ons--campaigns, events, volunteer roles, etc. -- rather than changes in the way an organization thinks and does business.  The problem is that without customer-driven approaches to your core business-- product development, relationships with members, innovation processes, measures and criteria of success—you will not be effective in increasing your value, relevance and profitability.

IBM is one of the three examples the article brings up. The IBM group in charge of product design changed the way they developed products from the way they even thought about design. The new “design thinking” approach did not begin with the conventional way of first thinking about product features. Instead, it started with the users trying to “understand what the user is trying to do at work, not simply how they interact with an existing application.” To gain such understanding, the company did not rely on surveys and other formal research instruments but, instead, immersed itself in customers’ lives. “Designers engage directly with individual users, developing empathy, observing how they work, and uncovering surprising ideas to help make their lives better. With this approach, cross-functional teams quickly develop prototypes to bounce off of customers.”

To overcome culture clashes and old habits in teams consisting of both software engineers and product designers, the company modified the process and created a new Design Thinking approach that consisted in 3 key steps:  

  1. Clarify three key objectives (called “hills”) framed as target outcomes for users for each software release.

  2. Engage people who are going to use the software or service (called “sponsor users”) from start to finish through the development process.

  3. Demonstrate the state of the proposed solution from the standpoint of the user in periodic reviews (called “playbacks”).

The new approach is working. The parts of the business where the approach is used most intensively grew revenue by double digits in 2014.

Intuit embarked on a major new cultural and operating initiative called “Design for Delight,” in recognition of the fact that “Intuit needed to go past meeting customer requirements to delighting them.” There are three core principles to Design for Delight:

  • Deep Customer Empathy – Immerse yourself with customers to know them better than they know themselves. To understand what really matters to customers, you should watch them, talk with them, and put yourself in their shoes.

  • Go Broad to Go Narrow – Create options before making choices. There are lots of possible answers, so to get one great idea, you need to create lots. The first idea is rarely the best.

  • Rapid Experiments with Customers – Get customer feedback early and often to understand the pros and cons of options. Watching customers react to prototypes through trial and error is better than relying on our own opinions.

All three of these companies experienced significant increases in customer satisfaction and revenue.

Imagine how this might be translated for a membership organization like an association:

  1. Toss surveys and evaluations unless they are just the icing on the cake. Instead “to understand what really matters to customers, you should watch them, talk with them, and put yourself in their shoes.

  2. Do not start the design of products/programs/benefits by trying to figure out which features to include and how they should be priced. Instead, start with the outcomes your members want to achieve through your products, benefits and services; the destination they need your help to arrive at.

  3. Engage people who are going to use the software or service (called “sponsor users”) from start to finish through the development process.” For example, you might create a volunteer role for interested members, such as, “development partners,” and create clear (and not nominal) paths for their collaboration.

  4. Engage these members in small pilots and processes for prototyping so that you can learn through market experimentation rather than abstract planning.  In short, put in place “Rapid Experiments with Customers Get customer feedback early and often to understand the pros and cons of options. Watching customers react to prototypes through trial and error is better than relying on our own opinions.”

It is only by recasting your core business from the inside-out to the outside-in—on the level of culture, practices and operations—that you can move your organization to customer centricity and relevance. 


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