Sunday, May 14, 2006

Innvoate or Die - Customers

Get customers directly involved in the innovation process
PowerBuilder has almost entirely lost mind-share. In order to re-introduce to a new generation of developers, Sybase should treat it as if it was a new product. When the product was originally being developed PowerSoft used the product internally and also partnered with clients. That gave them the kind of insight into what new features and improvements in existing features were needed. That same kind of insight is missing today. Eric Von Hippel notes: "Research indicates that the major reason for the commercial failure of manufacturer-developed products is poor understanding of users’ needs by manufacturer-innovators." Kathy Sierra also argues that "[w]ithout really talking to users the best you can hope for is to meet their expectations. You won't be able to craft that extra special magic that makes them passionate if you don't talk (and listen) to them." By partnering with key customers, Sybase can gain better knowledge about how the product is currently being used and where the areas for improvement are at. Eric Von Hippel notes that:

Modification of firms’ innovation processes to systematically search for and further develop innovations created by lead users can provide manufacturers with a better interface to the innovation process as it actually works, and so provide better performance. A natural experiment conducted at 3M illustrates this possibility. Annual sales of lead user product ideas generated by the average lead user project at 3M were conservatively forecast by management to be more than 8 times the sales forecast for new products developed in the traditional manner—$146 million versus $18 million per year. In addition, lead user projects were found to generate ideas for new product lines, while traditional market-research methods were found to produce ideas for incremental improvements to existing product lines. As a consequence, 3M divisions funding lead user project ideas experienced their highest rate of major product line generation in the past 50 years (Lilien et al. 2002).

Kathy Sierra also makes these arguments for working more directly with the end-users:

How many people are between you and real users? Each person in the middle is another point-of-communication-failure, and by the time the message gets back to the real engineers, god only knows what's happened to it.

What we need is a group of companies/developers who are willing to commit to:

  • Use the not-yet-GA version of the product to develop a new advanced technology application to be released to production or a next-generation version of an existing production application with significant enhancements and

  • Be ready to discuss their success using the product once it goes GA

Having users who are actually writing and attempting to release an application to production will ensure that the new features of the product are fully flushed out. It also ensures that missing functionality is discovered and addressed before the product goes GA. If the beta test participants are simply throwing together small throw-away test applications, the new features never get tested fully or stressed in a production environment.

Having users who have already written and deployed production applications using the new version will offer incentive for the remainder of the customer base (and potential new customers) to try the new version.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I think that Sybase has decided that PB is a commodity and has out-lived its usefulness (despite their declarations of committment). They're milking it for whatever they can, but their core business is in RFID, Info Mgt, etc. That's where these principles that you've outlined are being used. I think that they agree with you. : )

They just don't want to compete head-to-head with MS. Competition == less profit.

By the way, your point about the datawindow is pretty good, and if you check out the infragistic add-on for VS.NET, it's pretty dang close to the datawindow in terms of what it can display.