Before we consider how we might gather customer requirements it is important to understand the concept of value in a little more depth, as the requirements need to be considered in this context. Value is a complex measure which is shaped by a number of factors:
Freedom from faults speaks for itself, the product or service must be delivered to the customer as specified. Failure to do this reduces value. Equally, it is apparent that the degree to which customer needs and expectations (basic quality, spoken performance and excitement quality aspects) are met is significant to the value the customer will place upon the product. More complicated is the emotional engagement with the product or service; this is a combination of things such as: ergonomics, perceived social and cultural cachet, brand perception, aesthetics, linkage to self image, etc. A product which looks beautiful (to the customer in question), its their values (for example, eco-friendly), is seen as aspiration in the media and popular opinion, is easy (or ideally elegant) to use, and is associated with a brand which has high value for the customer will score highly on this element.
Quality of contact with the supplier (whether web or direct) is also a major factor, customers often cite feeling important and cared for as a crucial factor in their decision to do business with a particular organization. Again, this is itself a complex issue with ease of interaction, perceived competence and degree of responsiveness of staff playing a part, among other things – this is dealt with in more detail in chapter . Finally, cost is important in assessing value; importantly, this does not just mean purchase price, customers are often sophisticated in assessing longer term costs (running, taxation and insurance costs for cars are a good example).
To add to the complexity the five factors interact in ways which are sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. For example, it is reasonably clear that if you buy a cheaper car, you may accept a few more faults, but how important is usability for a more aspiration product? For example, the Apple iPhone 4 saw no dip in popularity, despite issues with reception and signal strength when initially launched (PCWorld.com, 2010).
This complicated context means that it is crucial, if we are to understand what the customer values, that we take a relatively sophisticated approach to customer requirements data.
Customer requirement gathering is often regarded as an unfortunate necessity. his may account for the half-hearted way in which many organizations approach the task. It will often be out-sourced to market research companies, for example. Listening to your customers is probably the single most important thing you can do as an organization, you should take the opportunity to get as many of your people as possible face to face with the customer. Especially people like designers. Often we take a very uninspired questionnaire based approach, where people are asked what they want from a product or service. This may well be fine for generating ‘spoken performance’ requirements, but is unlikely to provide insights into ‘basic’ or ‘excitement’ features. Be creative; engage with your customer in more direct ways. Send designers to where the customer is. If you design taxi cabs, send engineers to take rides in cabs and talk to drivers about what it’s like to use your product, as LTi Carbodies did. Rubbermaid’s ‘Customer Encounters’ programme put engineers in commercial and domestic kitchens to observe their products being used.
There is no single answer to the best way of gathering customer requirements, this section, and the one preceding it are designed to give a couple of examples, but mostly to alert the reader to the need for careful consideration of this area.
Translating Requirements into Design Features
Sadly, the difficulty with customer requirements does not stop when you have accurately captured them all. It is a complicated matter to ensure that the final design of the product or service effectively addresses the revealed customer value. Historically, the approach was for the marketing department to hand over the requirements document to the designers, who would then develop a design for approval through the organization’s New Product Development (NPD) process. This is fraught with difficulty as there is rarely a very strong check on the accuracy of the translation from the requirements to the final design. This has led to many products failing to meet market expectations. The fact that failure rates of new products has been stuck at around 30 percent for a long time (Schilling and Hill, 1989), and this does not speak well of the effectiveness of the translation.
Quality Function Deployment (QFD) is a rigorous, and highly necessary, technique which allows the whole of the NPD process to be driven by the customer requirements. The tool is treated in more detail in the companion e-book to this one; “Six Sigma: Principles and Practice”. This essentially uses matrices to develop an understanding of which design features affect which customer requirements, and to what degree. From this (and an understanding of the relative importance of requirements to the customer) it is possible to assess where to put development effort for maximum customer benefit.
This approach is very practical; it does, however, require a customer-centric mentality in the company to allow it to work to best effect. The application of QFD can easily be derailed if individuals choose to ignore or creatively interpret the customer requirements for their own purposes. Unless the cliché that the customer is at the centre of all we do proves to be true, no process will compensate.
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