Rob Reul, founder and Managing Director of Isometric Solutions, has decades of experience helping businesses understand what customers want. In his Analytically Speaking webcast, Rob talked about using data analysis to focus product development in areas that customers consider most critical. Rob demonstrated some great success stories in choice modeling and customer satisfaction surveys. In this interview, we asked Rob some more detailed questions about how these methods can be used to understand customer needs as related to software quality, feature enhancement, and managing a continuing conversation about user experience.
Melinda: Businesses are always looking to grow, which means attracting new customers, but it also means keeping current customers happy. Can you tell us about the differences between consumer research that’s intended to find new markets and consumer research that’s intended to examine performance for existing customers?
Rob: Research that seeks new markets usually coincides with the search for unmet needs. The common phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” rings true. These unknowns can be best isolated by studies of preference. Preference experimentation presents choices that respondents select from based on their interests. These studies often include an economic variable that then introduces a financial dimension that then expresses choice preferences based on a respondent’s willingness to pay. Together, this characterizes a new market venture by coupling economics with the probabilities of preference.
Research that examines performance seeks to increase a company’s competitiveness by evaluating the extent to which existing requirements are met. These are held as expectations. Thus an expectation scale is recommended because it is much more exacting than a satisfaction scale.
Melinda: Quality is an evolving issue for those of us who make software. Software is developed in the equivalent of a laboratory, so there’s a disconnect between how we make the product and how the product is used. What can consumer research teach the software industry about measuring customer happiness?
Rob: This is an interesting slice of the research equation. Looking into “happiness” (although initially overlooked by many) has lately been recast (in software) as the user experience. This new emphasis on the “experience” has been pursued by many with some success, the belief being that the greater the user’s experience the stronger the affinity the user will have toward the software. Stronger affinity then likely would extend to greater levels of overall satisfaction, product loyalty and product referral.
Melinda: Any thoughts on identifying focus areas for product development based on actual customer needs?
Rob: Software product development based on actual needs is known as the study of “use cases.” Here, researchers first seek to understand the very nature of the work task. They study the challenge the software user faces and what he or she seeks to accomplish. With this knowledge, software research focuses ensuing software development on ways to better meet those needs.
Melinda: When developing technical products (like statistical software), what the consumer wants is often only half the picture. What’s desired is often not technically feasible and sometimes does not solve the customer’s true problem. Can you talk about how consumer research can be linked to product research for technical products? How do you build a through-line between what the customer asks for and what their actual needs are?
Rob: As I touched on earlier, the deconstruction of the “use-case” helps to understand exactly what the software user seeks to accomplish. With that understanding, draw the line between those task needs and specific software functionality. Regarding customers’ lofty desires vs. feasibility, customers will continue to be customers, and those who best meet their true needs (stated or derived) will prevail.
Missed Rob’s Analytically Speaking webcast? View it on demand for an in-depth conversation on consumer and market research.
Update 6/10/14: If you're interested in learning more about consumer research, take a look at the upcoming training on the topic:
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