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Whenever I am consulting on marketing and product design, I am usually asked two questions, in the same order:

How did Apple come up with the iPod (or iPhone)?
Why can’t we do that?

Since “Go hire Steve Jobs” seemed to be an unsatisfactory answer, I decided to take a look at what makes a product take off in the marketplace? What makes people want to stand in line and pay a premium place? What makes people feel proud to own a product?

More importantly, what can you do to create one? In short, what do you need to do to design a breakout product? While there are no guarantees, here are four steps you can take to get started.

Step 1: Search the ends of the Bell Curve

Ever get stuck trying to think have just a smashing idea for a new product? You’ve talked with your R&D team and conducted countless focus groups with your core set of segmented customers, but you’re coming up with the same old, same old. Your focus groups give you conflicting data (some want high quality, some want low costs), so you compromise somewhere in the middle to please the greatest number. Maybe you’ve been told not to alienate some portion of the customer base. The truth is, it’s very difficult to get passionate insights from the majority of your current customers. You are more likely to find innovative ideas by having deep, multiple conversations with your extreme users. Spend time with them and observe them in their environment. Avoid asking them about the features they want. Observe them on their path of doing what they want to do.? Are they successful? Where do they fail? Where is time wasted? What would they rather be doing? Find out what they want to do, how they feel. What excites them? What frustrates them? What ideas do they have for a breakout product?

Step 2: Place your product in a larger storyline

Breakout products are designed with the larger customer experience in mind. Think Starbucks, of course. Where would the iPod be without iTunes? Bring the examples of extreme users into a story line, a day in their life, if you will. Create a storyboard of your customers in the environments in which they are using your product and service. Now ask “why?” again, and again. You should be getting to a deeper level of their emotional needs.

What else is going on around them? What else is happening in their day? Are they pressed for time? Consider the physical space as well as services. Designing a large format copier for a business? How about exploring the workspace around that copier? What about digital sending and security? Could that be more important than a faster copier speed? What are your customers seeking in that workspace? More time? A break from the routine? Social networking with their colleagues? My guess is that you’ll find that product utility is more a function of “what makes my life better and/or easier,” than added features and functionality – many of which never get used anyway.

Also, if your working on a truly innovative product, you’ll have to ask yourself the question, “who will this hurt and how will they react?” The quick and easy answer will be “my competition.” However the right answer is much less obvious. Who was hurt when word processing took-off? Quick and easy: typewriter manufacturers. Less obvious yet far more critical: Typing pools. Consider the effect of having to re-engineer a workforce of thousands to enable the obvious benefits of this application.

Step 3: Brainstorm a Premise

It is amazing how many times products are developed, and then given to designers and advertising personnel to make them stand out. The core competitive features may be there, but adding the zing factor is saved as a downstream activity. Why? Most marketers are pretty good at creating value propositions against their competition. Usually it’s in terms of functions (as I pointed out before, usually the more the better) or cost reductions. But they often do not take the time to explore the “what if?” questions. What if they could provide a breakout solution? From your storyboard in step 2, look for opportunities. Turn the current solutions on their head and ask “what if?” Avoid the trap of feature listing. You want to expand your sights to the full range of functional, emotional and social jobs that need to get done for your customers.

Steer away from the tried and true. What you are aiming for in this session is an emotionally compelling solution. Ask yourself what would make a customer not just prefer your product, but lust after it. And remember that you will not find the answer to that question in your market segmentation data, because lust, after all, is an unconscious activity. Designers of breakaway products understand this.

A breakout product enables customers to buy on emotion and justify with logic.

Step 4: Give your product a personality screen test

Now that you’ve brainstormed some possible product solutions, how would you describe your product? Is it a lifeless combination of metal, plastic, maybe some circuit boards and buttons? Hmm. Maybe you need to inject some real personality into your product. Let’s say it’s up for a starring role (at least on the retail shelf). How would you craft its personality? Is it male or female? Confident? Shrewd? Modest and unassuming? Bold and boastful of its strength?

Approachable or hard to know at first? For a starring role, it’s got to have personality that stands out and that is attractive to your customers. Staid and assured may be the right personality for a business offering, while sassy and new may be more appropriate for a retail item. The important point is to get clear on that personality, embrace it and express it through form, color, materials and finish.

Finally, make this a habit. Build these steps into your planning process.

Is designing for innovative products and solutions something you do as a standard part of your Marketing planning, or an activity thrown together when you can find the time? Spending deep time with your extreme users in their environments, storyboarding their experience and premising some breakout solutions cannot be a sideline activity.

You’ve got to make this routine. That means setting up the activities on your business planning calendar well in advance of your annual budget or other investment processes. Failing to do so often means that breakout products don’t see the light of day because the everyday commitments eat up the available funds and resources. Making this a habit means you have a robust way to re-invigorate your products and your brand promise.
Maybe next time, my clients will ask me how you did it and how they can be like you.

Dan Berne, founder and principal of Design4Brand, has over 15 years experience as a Marketing and Brand Design Manager. He specializes in helping Marketing and R&D executives and their teams design products and services to maximize brand value. You can reach him at [email protected].

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