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Uncover your customers’ changing needs.

The most successful companies are adept at giving their customers what they want. But in a fast-changing world, what the customer wants is constantly evolving. That’s where this Blink comes in. You’ll discover a new way to approach product development, so that you can stay on top of your customers’ shifting needs.

You’ll explore methods of conceptualizing opportunities, and reveal the differences between your business outputs and your customer outcomes. From brainstorming, to market research, to teamwork, this is your go-to guide for creating better products that set you apart from your competitors.

why you should always brainstorm alone;
the one question you should ask your customer; and
how to map your opportunity space.

Focusing on outcomes over outputs will help you create the right products for your customers.

What’s the difference between an output and an outcome? Knowing the answer might make all the difference to your business.

Let’s start by taking a look at what an output is. An output is a thing. This thing might be a product, or it might just be a feature of a product. If you ask your product team what their outputs are, they will point to all the great products that are sitting on your business’s shelves, or those products’ features, which they have designed.

Now let’s look at what an outcome is. A business outcome is not a thing; it’s a change. Maybe it’s a change in your business’s bottom line, or it might be a change in your customers’ behavior, or a change in customer-satisfaction levels. Outcomes are about the impacts that your company’s products have on your customers, or on your business itself.

Now that we’re clear on the difference between an output and an outcome, let’s ask another question: What should your company be focusing on, outputs or outcomes?

The answer is always outcomes. When you focus on outcomes over outputs, you put your customer at the heart of your business. Your product team starts by looking at what outcome they would want to achieve for your customers, and then thinks about what products to build or tweak, in order to make those outcomes a reality. This is the way to do things.

When the focus is on outputs, the product team comes up with a concept for a product first and only later thinks about what customer need or desire that product might serve. This is not the way to do things.

Let’s take a look at this difference in action.

Product consultant Teresa Torres worked with a custom-made dog-food company’s product team. This team started by thinking about what outcome they wanted for their customers. They decided that they wanted to improve their customers’ understanding of just how healthy their custom-made dog food was. If more customers realized how good their food was for their dogs, the product team figured that they would keep buying the food, month after month. With this outcome in mind, the product team set about experimenting with methods of improving their customers’ knowledge of their food. They made changes to the way they explained their product to customers, and then measured whether these changes had any impact on how many customers continued to subscribe to their dog-food service. This focus on outcomes, rather than outputs, allowed them to keep their customers’ needs at the heart of their operations.

Choose the right outcome, and dedicate enough time to achieving it.

When your product team starts focusing on outcomes over outputs, you can expect to see a boost in your business’s overall performance. But only if you manage to sidestep common pitfalls along the way. So let’s take a look at some typical mistakes product teams make.

First, many teams make the mistake of focusing on too many outcomes at once. Of course, this drive to achieve lots of outcomes in a short period of time is understandable. Many teams are under pressure to get more done in less time and are handed down different priorities by their bosses. However, focusing on a lot of outcomes at once is counterproductive. Why? Because your team will likely make some impact on all of them, but won’t make a major impact on any of them. Ultimately, this will mean that overall business performance will remain static, instead of improving. With this in mind, pick just a few outcomes to concentrate on.

Second, don’t make the mistake of jumping from one outcome to the next, every few months. In a lot of companies, firefighting is the order of the day; crises seem to arise every other week, and bosses encourage their teams to drop all their current priorities in favor of managing the latest crisis. But constant firefighting means that product teams will never make progress on any of their outcomes. That’s because, when it comes to continuous discovery, patience is key.

It’s unlikely that your team will be able to move the needle on any given outcome during the first three months of working on it. Instead, it’s usually only around the six- to nine-month mark that any real impact will start to emerge. So if you’re chopping and changing your outcomes every few months, nothing your team does will have a chance to make a difference to the business. What’s more, the steep learning curve during the first few months of discovery will be wasted. Your team will have done all of the tough learning about an outcome, but they won’t have enough time to apply that learning. Instead, they’ll be hurried on to the next outcome.

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re focusing on outcomes, when really you’re still focusing on outputs. This mistake happens all too often when teams get confused about the difference between the two.

For instance, the author worked with a student-recruitment team at a university, a team that assured her they were outcome-focused. When she asked them what outcomes they were focusing on, they replied that their goal was to increase the number of student reviews of courses the university had on its website. Can you see the problem here? Online reviews are a thing; they don’t necessarily represent a change for the target customer. Instead of focusing on the number of online reviews, the team should have been focused on increasing the number of website views that included a review. Focusing on page views would have put the focus on outcomes rather than outputs. After all, a page view is something that the customer does, and so changing what this view included would have had a direct impact on the customer. If you want to make sure your team keeps their focus on outcomes over outputs, then keep asking them one simple question: What impact will this change have?

The best product teams carefully map their opportunities.

If you’re in the business of creating new products, then you might have been told that it’s your job to solve your customers’ problems. But, in reality, you’re not in the problem-solving business; you’re in the business of opportunity. So let’s start to explore the myriad opportunities for creating products that your customers will love.

Why should product teams focus on opportunities rather than on solving problems? Well, imagine that you’re in the ice-cream business, and your job is to create an ice cream that people will really want to buy. By creating this ice cream, you’re not really solving a problem that your customers have. After all, they could be getting their nutrition from a bowl of spinach. Instead, you’re responding to a customer’s desire. Your delicious ice cream represents an opportunity to make a positive impact on your customers’ lives, by giving them something they’ll love. With this in mind, try to conceptualize all of your customers’ needs, desires, and pain points as opportunities for your business – opportunities to make your customers’ lives better in some way.

Your product team’s first task should be to identify which outcome they want to focus on. Once this outcome has been identified, their second task is to map out which opportunities exist to make this outcome a reality. Let’s look at a real-life example.

The author once worked with a product team who had been asked to look at an aspect of customer experience. If customers wanted to buy products from the company, they had to fill in and submit a lengthy application form before they could make a purchase. Somewhere along the way, many potential customers abandoned this application process, and this meant that fewer products were being sold. So the product team’s task was to increase the number of completed and submitted application forms.

In order to achieve this outcome, the product team began to explore the opportunity space surrounding it. What opportunities existed to make a positive intervention in the application process? What would help customers have a better experience? What would help them stay the course and purchase the company’s products?

The product team started by mapping this opportunity space individually. All three people in the team did different jobs, and so each of them had a different take on what might be going wrong in the application process. After they had each individually mapped out the opportunities, they shared their ideas with one another, and realized that other members of the team had come at the outcome from a unique perspective. These diverse approaches were eventually fused together to create innovative ideas about how this outcome might be achieved.

When your product team starts to map out the opportunity space surrounding a desired outcome, it’s important to include a wide range of ideas. If you focus only on a narrow area of shared knowledge within the team, then you’ll only come up with a narrow range of solutions.

Once you’ve gotten a good idea of all the opportunities that exist within the space you’re working in, you can start to test these opportunities. This is where market research comes in, including customer interviews and focus groups. You’ll start to explore these opportunities with customers to see how they might work in real life. Next up, we’ll take a look at how you can get the most out of market research, and make sure you’re asking customers the right questions.

Product teams need to generate lots of ideas – from their customers and from themselves.

When you start to conduct customer interviews, you might encounter an unexpected problem. It may feel like your interviewees just don’t have a lot to say. They may well give you short answers to your questions and leave you feeling as if they haven’t given you the in-depth answers you were looking for. Let’s explore this challenge, as well as its polar opposite: what to do when your interviewees have too much to say.

Let’s start by looking at why the customers that you interview may give you brief answers. It all has to do with social norms. When we have a normal, everyday conversation with someone, there is an unwritten social rule that the two participants should each do 50 percent of the talking. This means that when an interviewer asks them a question that is only one- or two-sentences long, the interviewee unconsciously assumes that they should only give two-sentence answers in response.

How can you counteract this? The best way is to explicitly tell the interviewee, right at the beginning of the interview, that you would like them to do a lot more talking than you, and that you’re interested in hearing everything they have to say on the matter at hand.

Now let’s look at the opposite problem: What to do when your interviewee gives you more information than you can possibly make use of?

When you are in the process of market research, you and your product team might find yourselves mapping vast numbers of opportunities. This is especially the case when you are working with digital-consumer products, because the opportunities to improve upon digital products are almost endless.

With this in mind, the question becomes: How can you identify the right opportunities to take forward and build on? Perhaps, for instance, you’ve been conducting interviews with customers of a streaming service, similar to Netflix. These customers present you with a robust list of their desires and pain points when it comes to streaming TV programs and movies over the internet. You and your team are now wondering which opportunity to take forward. Should you focus on your customers’ pain point of running out of episodes of their favorite TV show, or should you instead concentrate on fulfilling their desire to know the name of the actor that they’re watching on their screen?

The best way to decide which opportunity to focus on is to assess the impact that this opportunity would have on your outcome goals. So, if your desired outcome is to increase the number of subscribers to your streaming service, you would need to explore which opportunity would make the biggest difference to whether or not your customers were motivated to sign up for your service.

Once you’ve made a decision about which opportunity to take forward and work on, then it’s time to decide how you’re going to make an impact on it. For instance, say you decide to tackle the customer pain point of running out episodes of a favorite television show. How can your product team take this pain away? Of course, there are many different ways to achieve this goal, and the first step is to think about what all of these different ways are. This is the brainstorming phase of discovery.

It may seem as if your team only needs one good idea to make an impact on this opportunity and solve this particular pain point. But, really, the most effective way to reach an optimal solution is to generate as many ideas as possible. In the brainstorming phase, these ideas don’t need to be any good. Instead, you just need to come up with a lot of them. The number of ideas you can come up with for solving any given problem is known as fluency; if your team has a high level of fluency, then they are capable of generating many different ideas. Research shows that idea fluency is directly related to idea quality and originality. In other words, the teams that come up with the most ideas are also the teams that come up with the best and most creative ideas.

To come up with the most original and promising ideas, your product team should initially brainstorm alone. Evidence suggests that, when we’re asked to generate ideas in a group setting, we tend to self-censor our suggestions. We do this instinctively because we don’t want to say anything that might strike the wrong note. However, it’s exactly these unconventional, slightly wacky ideas that often end up sparking innovative solutions that will set your products apart from your competitors. So, with this in mind, encourage your team to split up and work on potential game plans alone for a while, before bringing everyone back together to share their ideas with the group.

If the process of continuous discovery sounds like a lot of effort, that’s because it is. Continuously improving the lives of your customers, through improving the products you offer them, isn’t easy. But the rewards, for both your business and the people it serves, will make it all worthwhile.

Final summary

Your customers’ needs, pain points, and desires are constantly changing. In response, the products you offer them must change too. When you’re trying to improve your products, it’s tempting to simply ask your customers what they want, and act accordingly. But your customers may not know what they want, and that’s where a sensitive process of discovery comes in. It’s your product team’s job to carefully map the opportunities to serve your customers better, and come to an informed decision about which opportunities to exploit.