Written by Kevin Heisey
on October 01, 2020

Organizations across the world spend billions of dollars developing new products that often fail to fully deliver value and efficiently address problems. Newly developed products might partially address needs, but they can often be more complex and expensive than necessary. Adopting a Product mindset to tackle Product Development can streamline Product Management processes and keep the focus on customer needs.

The first step in any digital transformation initiative must be a dedicated effort to truly understand the needs of the customer. According to the Standish Group, 64 percent of features in an average enterprise application are “rarely” or “never” used. That means that almost two-thirds of all development time, costs and resources are wasted on features that are never needed by the customer. So how do you ensure products are being built to fully meet customer needs? By placing the user at the forefront of development and truly understanding their needs.


Lessons from Design for Extreme Affordability Case

While we help companies tackle complex digital transformation, let’s look at a simpler example, as Product Management practices can benefit all organizations. This use case from several years ago highlights the benefits of using key aspects of a Product Management approach to develop and deliver products that fully meet customer needs at the lowest cost. Students from the Stanford School’s Design for Extreme Affordability class were challenged to design a better incubator for premature and low-birth-weight babies in the developing world. Hospitals were struggling because new incubators were expensive and donated incubators were difficult to use, maintain and repair.

The students began with a need-finding visit to the neonatal unit of the hospital in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. After a few days observing the doctors and nurses there, they asked to visit the rural areas to see how premature babies were cared for before they reached the hospital. They discovered that most of the premature babies were born in rural areas several hours away and never made it to the hospital.

Like a Product team, the students carried out a form of user research and customer journey mapping. They identified the end user as the parents with premature babies, learned about their journey to getting care and the challenges and pain-points they faced. By doing this, the team was able to define the problem space more accurately, shifting away from how to build a better incubator for the hospital and toward creating something that could carry out the same function in the rural areas away from the hospital.

Drawing on what they learned from observing the parents and babies, the students saw beyond the steps in the process to see the bigger picture. Their focus shifted to life-giving care for premature and low birthweight babies as the “Product” rather than improving treatment capabilities at the hospital.


Making the Shift from Project to Product

A Product frame of mind or shifting from a Project mindset to a Product mindset, is a core characteristic of Product Management. A Project approach is more linear where functional teams are segregated in silos, carry out their part in the project and then “throw it over the wall” to the next team. Each team’s vision doesn’t go beyond carrying out their specific task. A Product frame of mind breaks down silos to create a comprehensive and inclusive Product team that works collaboratively toward delivering the most effective product.

Getting back to our example, you can think of the medical personnel in the hospital in Kathmandu as initially having a Project frame of mind focused solely on doing the best they can with the patients they received. From that perspective, designing and delivering a better incubator would improve their ability to carry out their function. But it wouldn’t benefit the babies who never made it to the hospital.

While the academic course was a design course and the students surely didn’t look to Product Management guidance or approaches, functionally, they took a Product mindset that connected the experiences, concerns and needs of the end users with the expertise and knowledge of the medical professionals to develop and deliver a product that more efficiently and effectively saved lives compared to what they might have done had they focused solely on designing a better incubator.

Ultimately, they developed a sleeping bag-like pod called the Embrace Infant Warmer that wraps around a baby and is brilliantly functional in its simplicity. The product uses a phase-change material pouch that maintains babies at the proper temperature. The pouches are heated and re-heated with hot water and the entire sleeping bag can be sanitized by boiling. It meets the needs of the end users by being portable, simple to use and clean, inexpensive and functions without electricity.


Lessons for Transformation

There are lessons to be drawn from the Stanford students’ experience for enterprises amid digital transformations. Everyone seeks to deliver the best product that fully addresses the user’s problem and efficiently meets their needs, but too often efforts fall short delivering products that aren’t the best fit and are too complex and expensive. Think of the outcome if the students had designed a new and better incubator. It would have been a complex and expensive solution compared to the Embrace Infant Warmer and it would have only helped those who made it to the hospital.

There are several aspects of their approach that are common Product Management practices that helped them develop a more efficient and effective solution:

  1. Clearly Define the Problem Space: Students went out to learn about users and map their journey to better understand and define the problem.
  2. Product Vision: Students shifted the vision from improving a single step in a process to a focus on the overall purpose of the product.
  3. Lean Product Roadmap: Product development started with the simplest solution and features were added incrementally.
  4. Culture of Collaboration: Functional silos were broken down to bridge the experiences of parents and their babies, medical expertise from the hospital, physical constraints and the design team.

The Stanford design students’ approach allowed them to see the bigger picture and fully understand the problem. They were able to bring together the experience of the rural parents, the expertise of the medical professionals at the hospital and the vision of the design team to develop an affordable product that creatively helps more premature and low birthweight babies.


How does this relate to your digital transformation initiatives?

Remember the Standish Group’s findings that 64 percent of new features in enterprise applications are underutilized indicating they might be unneeded or that the applications aren’t the best fit for their users. The design students avoided falling into that trap by shifting their focus to understanding the users, their experiences and challenges and then designing a product that is the best solution to the user’s problems. Their customer focus and customer-centric product vision are hallmarks of the Product Management approach that can help any enterprise efficiently develop products that fully deliver value by effectively addressing customer needs while avoiding unnecessary complexity, underutilized features and the associated costs. Your organization can implement these same practices to ensure development time and costs directly address customer needs in the best way.

To learn more tips for implementing the Product Management approach and how it can be used to effectively and efficiently develop and deliver the right product to meet user needs, watch our 10 minute on-demand webinar, “Product Genome: How to Create a Customer-Centric Product Blueprint.”