Your objective is to sell your product. Your customers objective is to solve a problem.

Who is using my product in a way I never intended—and how?

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Once a product has sold, it’s pretty much out of your control. You may have an idea why people will buy it, and what they’ll do with it, but the most you can ever do is guess. So why are you assuming that you know what your customer actually likes and values about your product, and how they use it solve a problem they have?

One of my favorite blogs to read when I have downtime is Ikeahackers.net. Ikeahackers is just what it sounds like—a place where people can show off the ways in which they have repurposed and customized IKEA products. Some of the hacks are pretty impressive for a DIY home engineer (e.g., hanging a Mälm bed frame to the wall so it can flip up like a Murphy bed). Others are simpler (e.g., using printed curtains as fabric for a dress). Still others border on creative genius (e.g., the financially strapped parents of baby twins who created a feeding station by cutting two baby seat–sized holes in their IKEA kitchen table probably deserve a job in the design and innovation department).

These hackers are an extreme and sometimes funny example of “unanticipated uses,” but I use them here to reinforce an important point. It’s easy to lock yourself into thinking that you fully understand who is using your product and how they are using it. There’s a reason Who is my customer? is not a Killer Question: It sets you up to get an obvious and easy answer rather than forcing you to look outside of what you know to be true about the people who use and appreciate your products.

Unanticipated Use

I myself have experienced this disconnect between how I assume my product is used and how it is actually used. My wife and I have a favorite bakery near where we live. The bakery is a small operation that makes great cakes and cupcakes. It’s one of those places where there is always a line out the door on a Saturday afternoon and my wife likes to take her time, which means that I spend a lot of time there too. About two years ago we stopped in to grab a quick snack. As we contemplated vanilla versus chocolate, I noticed an HP TouchSmart set up on the corner of the counter; naturally, I went over to check it out. Now, the TouchSmart was the first PC that users could interact with by touch. It’s got a ton of applications. A busy, overscheduled family can use it as a hub computer for the home, running their calendars off of it and coordinating and communicating with one another.

My wife uses hers while she cooks. She goes online to find recipes and coupons, or to check her e-mail. Sometimes she entertains friends with streaming music, or plays mahjong while they hang out in the kitchen. Designers and artists, such as the contestants on Project Runway, can use it to digitally sketch out images and ideas that need to be easily and instantly shared. However, in all our design and marketing meetings it had never occurred to us that the TouchSmart could be used as a customer-facing kiosk in the retail market. Yet this is precisely what the owner of the bakery had done. He had bought a TouchSmart and written his own simple sales application. Each image—be it chocolate brownie or three-tier wedding cake—clicked through to an ordering screen. The customer could customize their order at their leisure, and place it without waiting in the interminable line.

I was impressed, to say the least—and stunned that we had missed such an obvious use for something we’d worked so hard on. In the following weeks, I shared the story with anyone who would listen and suggested to them to go by the store and try it out for themselves. The teams took that input and developed a TouchSmart version that would support a kiosk offering. Today if you go into to Sam’s Club, or visit Chicago O’Hare Airport, you’ll see TouchSmart kiosks in action.

Solve A Problem

So, what should you take away from this story?

The person buying your product doesn’t see it as an end solution. They see it as a tool that will help them solve a problem. For example, “I have this tiny, tiny bakery. I can’t hold or display everything I’m capable of offering. I’m losing out to bigger competitors. When I physically print out pictures and put them in a photo album for my customers, they get grimy and dirty and unappealing in a matter of weeks, yet I don’t have the time to swap out pictures on a regular basis. I need something simple and efficient that will showcase my wares and take orders when I’m too busy.”

Your customers look at what you’re delivering as a tool—a tool for them to achieve their objective.

I love being surprised on the job, and our local bakery showed me something I’d never considered. Now, its owner doesn’t think he did anything that interesting. To him it’s a completely logical way to address his need. The fact that it never occurred to us to offer a TouchSmart as the solution didn’t stop him from figuring it out for himself. So, figuring out who uses your product in a way you never intended can unlock new opportunities you would have never considered. You want to potentially double your sales? Go out there and investigate. Use the Sparking Points below to push yourself. You may be surprised.

Sparking Points

  • What problems and needs are you looking to address? Are you so tightly focused on what you believe your customer’s problems and needs to be that you are missing out on potentially huge opportunities?
  • How could you identify existing customers and observe how they use your product?
  • Is there a way to give your potential customers an opportunity to play with and use your product without giving them specific parameters for how, when, and why they should use it? What do they come up with?

 

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