Where does the resistance lie?
Design Thinking lists three conditions that must be met for a product to succeed: desirability – developing new, desirable products; feasibility – overcoming internal challenges to produce the product; and viability – engaging customers.
Design Thinking relies on iteration – what project managers refer to as progressive elaboration – to experiment with a product until succeeds.
Desirability is a measure of how well a company answers the question, “how might we make this more appealing to our customers?”
If you are a kitchen equipment company hoping to distinguish yourself from the competition, introducing a line of products that has been carefully calibrated to the needs of the user is a great strategy – one that requires observation of and feedback from the user. OXO began its run of success by introducing a carrot peeler which was easy to hold.
Tesla has an entirely different challenge. It can’t make its electric cars fast enough. Design Thinking and its devotion to the user will be of little impact on this problem, unless we reframe the question from “how might we make this more appealing to our customers?” to “how might we make this easier for our people to produce?” The same approaches of idea generation, experimentation and feedback apply here.
Viability can be expressed in the question, “how might we make this at a profit?”
Uber Eats is an example of a new business model becoming viable because of a shift in infrastructure. With Uber providing a platform linking drivers and users, it became viable for restaurants to have their food delivered to customers’ homes. (Whether Uber itself can continue to take investor money to subsidize this process in a pursuit of a dominant position in the marketplace is another story. Like WeWork, Uber they may find that viability – turning a profit – eludes them.)
Desirability, Feasibility and Viability are interlinked
Products fail because they suffer a weakness in at least one of these characteristics.
The most recent Chevrolet SS was a four-door cruiser with a Corvette V8 and even an available manual transmission. It was a sensation – on Youtube. And a failure in the marketplace. It’s not that people didn’t like it, it’s just that it was too expensive.
The appeal of modestly handsome sedan that is large, comfortable and a powerful cruiser isn’t lost on me or anybody else who reads car magazines, but people weren’t willing to pay the high selling price for a vehicle with a plain Jane wrapper and family car brand. One can’t fault GM for looking at its Australian Holden brand and trying to sell a version in North America. The problem was the low volume meant a high price – too high to find footing in the market. So it wasn’t feasible to make the car at a price point that made it widely desirable, and so it wasn’t a viable, i.e. profitable, product.
New Coke is a classic case of failing to identify true desirability. It scored well in focus groups, but not in the marketplace. It’s not that it was too expensive – people just didn’t like it. The new product was just as easy to make, bottle and distribute as its predecessor (meaning it was feasible). It was sold at the same price, through the same channels. It simply wasn’t desired. Nobody asked the question, how can you change my favourite drink? Even if the taste had been objectively better, Coke had succeeded in part as a tradition, a shared identity. The company violated this identity when it changed the formula. The company quickly back-pedalled and returned to the old formula under the Coke Classic banner.
Examples of feasibility failures are a little rarer these days, because technology is at the point where nearly anything is possible – if not desired or profitable. Electric air travel is an example here. While the technology is having an impart in some reals, like short hop air taxi drones and small electric trainers, in general the low energy density of existing battery technology makes electric air travel impractical – not feasible – because the batteries would weigh so much that the aircraft itself couldn’t bear much payload or passengers.
Viability failures often stem from too high a price, or difficulties with distribution. An interesting example of a viability challenge cropped up in the news today. One would assume that well-insulated homes would sell very well in my native Canada, with its cold winters and hot summers. The challenge faced by home builders is that there is very little market reward for building with energy conservation in mind. In fact there is a penalty because the upfront cost – which may in fact be justified in long term savings – is a barrier to the necessary mortgage loans. Desirable and feasible yes, viable no, at least with the current regulatory framework.
For a product to succeed
For a product to succeed it must meet all three criteria. The common advice from Design Thinking adherents is to focus on the user. This is good advice in many situations, since it is surprisingly easy for experts internal to your company to assume they know what people want.
Desirability is vital, but insufficient. A product must also be feasible (possible to make) and viable (possible to sell at a profit) to succeed. To meet these criteria, often you will need to involve people internal to your company – the manufacturing team, the programmers, the channel and marketing people.