Customers can play an important role in helping you create medical devices that suit their needs.
Moshe Engelberg, PhD
The medtech industry is facing significant challenges that affect product management, market positioning, and early-stage design and development. There are numerous external forces—downward cost pressures; reimbursement and regulatory requirements; increased competition; and, of course, relentless internal pressure to get to market fast and generate sales. All of these factors make it harder than ever to design and market medical devices customers want and will buy.
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One solution is keeping the customer front and center. But that’s easy to say, hard to do. A customer-centric approach is not a panacea to counter all the marketplace challenges medtech companies face. However, it will help you think differently, engage with customers differently, and design and market your devices differently. The first step is to examine how you think about the business you are in.
Start with the Right Mindset
Too many medical device companies still think they’re in the business of making and selling boxes. They may not say exactly that to customers, but internally they use those words—and usually with a mixture of pride, arrogance, and, I think, fear.
Unfortunately, that thinking infiltrates everything the company does, from new product innovation to downstream marketing.For medical device executives, engineers, product managers, and even marketing and sales staff, it’s an easy trap to slip into—especially if the company has had success in the past.
The reality is that medical device companies do make boxes. However, that’s not the business they’re in.
If you are a medtech company, you are in the business of restoring and improving health. Period. Recognizing that will help you stay focused on making devices customers want and will buy.
Get Customer Input the Right Way
If you want to know what customers want, it makes sense to ask them, right? Absolutely— with a big caveat. There is a right way and a wrong way to get and leverage customer input in order to make medical devices they want and will buy.
Wrong: Ask customers what features they want in your product.
Right: Ask customers what outcomes they want from using your product.
Often, the way product managers or researchers ask customers about solutions abdicates responsibility and sets them up for failure. It is not the responsibility of customers to figure out what features will provide the experience they desire or achieve the result they want. What customers can meaningfully talk about is what experience and outcomes they want. Once you know that, you can back into why those outcomes are important. Then you can translate that understanding into a product requirement and validate its accuracy and importance.
For example, you might hear respiratory therapists say they want a face mask to be a certain shape. That’s a solution. If we took that solution at face value and passed it on to the engineers and designers as a recommendation, we would likely be misleading them because we don’t yet know the desired outcome.
Instead, we dig deeper to reveal why respiratory therapists want the mask to be a certain shape and what outcome it will achieve. We learn that the outcome is about maximizing patient comfort in older patients, not about minimizing air leakage. We can then propose and validate a measurable requirement designed to achieve that outcome, such as “maximize comfort for older patients wearing a mask for more than one week.” Now the engineers and designers take over to bring the requirement to fruition.
Remember, identifying solutions and designing products is the responsibility of the product manager or program manager. Creating effective messaging is the job of marketing and communication professionals. But customers can also play a major cocreative role and inspire tremendous change when they’re engaged in the right ways and at the right time.
Customers can help identify meaningful problems and unmet needs, envision what a better situation would look and feel like, and react to and improve upon the products and messaging we present to them.
Asking the right questions about the right things gets customer input that leads to better products that solve meaningful customer problems.
Minimum Viability, Maximum Value
The basic idea of a “minimum viable product”—popularized by Eric Ries and the Lean Startup movement—makes sense for medtech: Put in just enough features so you validate that what you’re making is viable. Viable means the lean product adequately meets a customer need and will sell. Then you keep iterating and improving.
Clearly, the minimum viable product process can be tougher in the medical device industry due to factors such as regulatory approvals, reimbursement issues, and clinical trials. However, the minimum viable product intent of minimizing both investment and risk can help you avoid going to market with an expensive, feature-rich product that bombs.
The problem we've seen is that minimum viable product can inadvertently lead to a product-centric mindset in which value to the customer takes a backseat to minimizing features. This happens when the driving issue is “How little can we put in this product to make it viable?” without real regard for the value of the problem that product formulation solves.
An alternative is combining two ideas: the “minimum viable product” and the “maximum valuable product.”
Maximum valuable product is not about how many features you can pack into a new product. It is about how much value your product can provide to customers. The driving force shifts from how little you can get away with to how much you can offer; specifically, “How much of this particular problem can we solve for the customer?”
The order and integration of the minimum viable product and maximum valuable product is critical. Here's the five-step sequence we recommend:
Start with the maximum value product perspective. Identify how much value you can provide customers for a particular problem. Specify in detail what aspects of the problem you're solving, what benefit is created, and how important each is to customers.
Validate with customers the meaningfulness of the problem you're solving and have them rank order the importance of the benefits your product can provide.
Make a list of what technology or features are needed for customers to experience each benefit and its value. Be sure to include low-tech and high-tech possibilities. Align features with the ranked benefits.
Now, bring in the minimum viable product approach to decide what it will take to provide the required features. Start with the features needed to deliver the most highly ranked benefit, and then continue down the list. Think about trade-offs like this:
Option A: Do a good job of providing the most important benefit, so that you’ll have enough resources to also provide for the second most important benefit.
Option B: Do a great job of providing the most important benefit. Pour all your resources into that and come back to the second most important benefit later.
Use lean and agile research techniques to get customer feedback on Option A versus Option B.
Now, you’re ready to take something to early adopters that has the optimal balance of providing value to customers and being viable to make.
In medtech, there are significant barriers to successful product development and marketing that are absent in other industries. There are also incredible opportunities unique to medtech.
This is an industry that exists to save lives. That perspective will help you make and market technology and devices customers want and will buy. Engage customers in cocreating, but do it in the right way and at the right time. Focus on value, not product features, even as you protect investments and mitigate risk with minimum viable product and maximum value product processes.
Increase your effectiveness at designing and marketing devices customers want and will buy by keeping customers first in how you think and all you do.
Moshe Engelberg, PhD, is the founder of ResearchWorks, a strategic consulting and custom research firm serving clients in medtech and health IT.
[image courtesy of STUART MILES/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET]