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Gaining Insight by Being a Prosumer

In my previous blog I described “insight” of the market and technology capabilities as one of the “i’s” of iNPD and being necessary for a company to have to launch successful products.. Another way to describe insight is “intimate” knowledge of what the market really wants and needs. OK, makes sense you say but how do I get “insight?”

Voice-of-Customer is a set techniques and tools that are used to achieve insight and intimate knowledge of the market’s needs and wants. There are several tools available that I’ll explore with you in future blogs, but today I am going to present the concept of Prosumer and how it can help you achieve insight, but how it can also cause blind spots in your understanding of market needs.

I first came across the concept after hearing Regis McKenna ( give a talk about product innovation (circa 1986 and expanded and described in his book Total Access: Giving Customers What They Want in an Anytime, Anywhere Word total access).

Regis McKenna was not the first one to coin the word. It was coined in 1980 by the futurist Alvin Toffler, in his book The Third Wave, as a blend of producer and consumer. He used it to describe a possible future type of consumer who would become involved in the design and manufacture of products, so they could be made to individual specification. Also known as mass customization, we have seen several companies like Dell embrace the idea.

In the context of mass customization, the word certainly applies to web 2.0 services where the members create and consume their own content. For a bit of a bunny trail excursion, check out this video featured on Read/Write web from Davide Casaleggio where Prosumer is featured strongly:

In his talk, Regis provide an observation that companies that both produce and use (consume) their products in “real-use” situations gain insight and intimate knowledge (my words not his – hey it’s been over 20 years! – but it was something like that). If you think about it, that can be very powerful and provide a company a real advantage in understanding what the market really wants. In some markets, especially fast moving high-tech segments, where the rules, expectations, and for that matter “customers” are being created in real-time, it may be the most efficient way to stay ahead of the pack.

I can recall acting in the role of prosumer when I was heading up an R&D; facility for a specialty printing company on the leading edge of digital print. If it weren’t for my hands-on daily usage of the product, my team and I probably would have missed a lot of innovative opportunities and quite frankly designed products that consumers didn’t need or want. The old eloquent solution without a known problem to solve syndrome.

And think about product developers who are involved with creating high performance sports equipments like bikes and skis. Yes of course a developer can work from a set of well articulated specifications, but specifications often aren’t well articulated and without the intimate knowledge gained by being a consumer, the specifications are lost in translations. Nothing like experience a product first hand to really know what it takes to make it great.

So that’s the positive side of being a consumer of your own designs and products. You gain intimate knowledge by “doing.” On the flip side however, you can fool yourself by believing you are the market and really miss the mark. An example that comes to mind immediately are the original MP3 players.

There were plenty of MP3 players on the market long before iPOD was introduced. Many of them were designed by technologist and no doubt these folks used their products and probably loved what they create. The problem with most of these players is that the human interface was designed by people trained in a software engineering paradigm of hierarchical data structure – i.e. folders and top down navigation. Perfectly fine for users that understand the interface, but a disaster for the rest of the world that just wanted to play music and not wanting to master arcane user interfaces. (Of course the other major problems with these early entrants is that they did not solve the whole product – i.e. working out a deal with the music industry to supply content – legally that is).

While I advocate being a prosumer as much as you can, the example above points out a major flaw in that at best, as a prosumer you may only be capturing one market persona –yours – which may or may not be the biggest opportunity out there. So my advice is to continue to play and experience your products, but understand that it’s a big world out there and getting outside VOC perspective, be it talking directly with non-current customers or working with NPD professionals to help you remove your blind spots, will lead you to broader commercial success.

As always I am interested in hearing your thoughts on Prosumer and your VOC experiences.


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