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How to Succeed at Product DevelopmentHow to Succeed at Product Development

March 8, 2002

4 Min Read
How to Succeed at Product Development

Originally Published MPMN March 2002


How to Succeed at Product Development


Sheila Mello, author of Customer-Centric Product Definition: The Key to Great Product Development.

The key to a successful product launch is paradoxically simple: create a product that fills a specific need in the marketplace better than competing solutions. The simplicity of this idea belies the complexity of actually carrying it out, writes Sheila Mello in Customer-Centric Product Definition: The Key to Great Product Development (New York City: AMACOM, 2001). A managing partner and principal consultant at Product Development Consulting Inc. (PDC; Boston; www.pdcinc.com), Mello describes the market-driven product definition (MDPD) process in her book and shows how device OEMs among others have adopted it to develop successful products. Mello discussed her approach during an interview with MPMN.

The biggest mistake many companies make, according to Mello, is telling potential customers about a product they are developing, showing them the alternatives that are available, and asking them what they think. "You won't get any out-of-the-box thinking," she says, "because you've already put a box around the feedback. The customer-centric approach begins with developing empathy for the customer and understanding the customer's value proposition before you have an actual product in hand," explains Mello. Focus on the problems that the customer encounters with comparable products, she adds, and determine which things are "must haves" that will make your product better than the competitor's. Mello cites projects she was involved with at Bio-Rad and Dade Behring to illustrate this approach.

When Bio-Rad team members initially defined the critical features of a diagnostic instrument, high throughput was deemed a critical element in the customer's buying decision. "More throughput was considered the Holy Grail for new products by internal company functions," says Mello, but not by potential customers.

Understanding What the User Really Wants

The MDPD process revealed that instrument users were frustrated by the inability to obtain any test results until the full array of tests had been completed. "Consider the aggravation of completing 98% of a test cycle when the machine stops, and being unable to get those results until the problem has been fixed," says Mello. Most of the instruments on the market operated in this manner. The desire for this feature did not emerge spontaneously during customer interviews, however; it came to light during a contextual analysis of the laboratory environment. Bio-Rad subsequently validated this finding with a broad survey of potential users. "It saved the company a fortune in R&D dollars and time to market," says Mello, because increasing throughput would have added cost to the product without substantially adding value.

Developing Devices that Delight

Observing the environment in which a device will be used and not simply relying on conventional customer interviews contributed to the most successful product launch in Dade Behring's history, according to Mello. "When I joined the project at Dade Behring to develop a chemical analyzer, the company had already conducted several customer visits," says Mello. "The vice president brought us in, and we went out and did those visits with a totally different approach." Dade Behring's original concept was to offer an analyzer with the capability to perform numerous types of blood and sample analyses at the same time. What the firm failed to recognize--because it did not properly evaluate the context into which the instrument would be integrated--was that modularity would be a delighter. "Customers wanted to build on to what they had and did not necessarily want a comprehensive new system," says Mello.

Extracting meaningful information from the potential users of a product requires asking the right questions, stresses Mello. This is more difficult than it appears, she adds, because customers don't always know what they want. "You have to know how to talk to them, how to ask why a particular feature is important," she says. "Ask them: if you had that feature, what problem would it solve? People have a preconceived notion of what it means to visit customers that we're trying to address in this book," she says. "You have to think differently."

This can be especially challenging for device companies, where innovation tends to be more technically driven and is not always focused on finding better ways to solve problems. "You can be extremely innovative and still not have developed a product that meets the needs of the marketplace," says Mello. "By understanding the process from soup to nuts . . . you can be much more effective in solving user problems and developing a product that delights."

Norbert Sparrow

Copyright ©2002 Medical Product Manufacturing News

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