Friday, June 25, 2010

Aligning Engineering Industry to Customer’s voice

Got a call from an ex-colleague (currently heading an engineering service provider company), that they are looking for someone for QFD training. Quality function deployment of QFD as it is popularly called, is a method of capturing voice-of-customer in a structured manner which I learnt almost 16 years back. After that first learning seminar, I actually never heard this being mentioned in any forum or company I interacted with. After I quit the engineering company, I studied Industrial design and founded Onio. In the product design paradigm, for the last 13 years (since Onio came into being), none ever mentioned QFD to me. I really don’t know if there are evolved methods that have come up after that to ‘structure’ the customers’ voice.

Anyways, first I reacted in surprise that someone is asking for this training. Then I recalled how Onio has travelled through the journey of product innovation and actually built a complete new practice OnioNxt on the newer methods of capturing customers’ voice. Ethnography, bodystorming, trend research etc. are some of the methods Onio has been using with very complex innovation assignments. Somehow, the engineering world is totally unaware of this entire gamut. Spoken needs, are a passé now. And there are more greys in the unspoken needs of the customer, which no single method can detect.

In one of assignments where we were helping an auto-major with trend research in India, there were two more companies involved along with us. One of them specialized in ethnography, who were doing ‘ride-alongs’ in the country while the other company provided the unavoidable market data. Our role was to present the trends in the country and take the client team to witness those trends in different parts of the country (called Trend Tours). This was the first time (five years back) we realized that there is a confluence of market research, ethnography and trend research to evolve a bigger picture of what customer wants. A customer who knows that due to the continuous sitting, his back hurts and hence he wants a better car seat, will never verbalise that the upholstery that he wants is actually more organic and ‘feel light’ in experience. Office and the everyday stress of living is forcing ‘feel light’ mood and interiors in cars but this is an observation that can only happen through ethnography as a tool. No customer will be able to verbalise, the connect. Once we know the overall ‘mood direction’ for the interior, it is easy to design control panel, storage units, dash-board and the upholstery to enhance the ‘feel light’ mood. While these anthropology techniques of studying man-product interaction have already gained ground in FMCG companies, it is yet to get a foot in the door of engineering/manufacturing oriented organizations. Not to talk of how Onio is using ethnography for corporate brand research……

One of the reason why these methods have not been able to cut ice with many organizations is due to lack of quantifiable output; Which in any case is the very nature of the method (qualitative). If a researcher mentions an insight, which may be result of a deep research or through a deep meditation, the longer and more tortuous journey is to convince other people/management, that the insight is valid. I was talking to a young marketing manager in a large consumer durable company while talking about communication in retail stores. They were facing a problem of ineffectiveness of the current store/product graphics. Only quantifiable route to this problem was ‘eye-ball tracking’ which was a costly method. While we know that many such issues can be tackled by simple Heuristics Analysis (by first principle of good graphic design/ or through laws of visual clustering like Gestalt Laws) i.e. any visual content on the right hand upper corner of a product would have first visual priority. Now this gentleman says “prove it”…. This proving business knows know end. It does require certain amount of organizational maturity into the science of insights to even start respecting the insights as a method of study.