VOC Research Should Be Continuous (Not a Project)
Typically, we tend to think of new product development (NPD), as a project. That is, it has an end, and it has a beginning. It does not take much speculation to know why this is. We develop new products as a series of projects. The phased-gate system (such as “Stage Gate™) begins with Gate 1 and continues to Gate 5, or 7, or at whichever gate is the “launch” gate. In other words, our new product development effort has a beginning and an ending… making NPD a series of projects.
As a result, there’s the feeling that we should launch a Voice of the Customer study at the beginning of each product development cycle. While this isn’t bad to do, it’s a much better practice to conduct customer research continually, not just as part of a project. Further, the idea that customer insight work is completed in the early phases of development are short-sighted. Even within the project-paradigm, VOC work should continue. Within the earliest phases, it should focus on uncovering and prioritizing customer needs. Within the middle phases, VOC should focus on specific development questions. And in the latter phases, it should involve testing concepts with customers. Therefore, for starters, VOC should continue throughout the development project. But even that isn’t enough. Customer insight work should never end. Always uncovering new insights to inform not only current development, but future product strategies.
Teresa Torres, in her book, “Continuous Discovery Habits,” (2021) states six prerequisite mindsets for product managers. They are: 1) Outcome-oriented, 2) Customer-centric, 3) Collaborative, 4) Visual, 5) Experimental, and 6) Continuous. Regarding “continuous,” Torres goes on to say that you should “evolve from a project mindset to a continuous mindset. Rather than think about (customer) discovery as something that we do at the beginning of a project, … learn to infuse discovery continually throughout your development process.”
Torres goes on to explain the value of continuous, rather than project-based, customer insight. She explains that the development team will have access to information that precisely informs whatever decisions are before them. This illustrates something that should be obvious… new product development is a decision-making process.
We begin with strategic decisions, about what market to select. The process continues with research decisions, informing how to scope each project. With data, decisions are made as to which opportunities to pursue. After idea generation, decisions are made about what ideas to pursue. And decisions are made as we continue from idea to prototype to production model.
To flip the switch from a project-mindset to a continuous mindset, the collective customer knowledge will grow, improving the quality of all those decisions. Further, each VOC initiative will build upon the previous. With a project mentality, often years pass between projects, and knowledge is lost. Finally, continuous learning will speed up development. There should no longer be the need to “wait for the VOC to finish” before pursuing a new product idea. The knowledge will already be there!
For further reading:
Teresa Torres. Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021.
Scott Burleson, “The Voice of the Customer: A Primer for Everyone”, The AIM Institute Blog, 2021.
Gerry Katz, Darin Eich and Jane Boutelle, PDMA Webcast: “5 Ways to Build Your Customer into the Front End of Innovation”, 2015.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
He has a diverse professional background within manufacturing engineering, product management, voice-of-the-customer training and SaaS development. Notable career stops include product manager for John Deere’s compact tractors, innovation leader for Actuant corporation, and Director of the Strategyn Institute. At Strategyn, he worked alongside the world's best jobs-to-be-done practitioners. Strategyn, founded by pioneer Tony Ulwick, is ground zero for Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI).
Today, as Senior Vice President for The AIM Institute, Burleson leads product development for Blueprinter® software, teaches workshops on innovation using the New Product Blueprinting process, and advises corporate leaders and practitioners on growth via JTBD principles.
He has a MS in Management and a BS in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University.