The designers and engineers who work at HP face many challenges in getting their ideas signed off on. It’s a long process from an idea to a finished prototype. Before any product can hit the market, it faces one final test. I take the prototype home, give it to my wife, and say, “Tell me what you think.” Now, my wife is an extremely smart and focused individual, but she is emphatically not a techie. She doesn’t care how a gadget works; she just wants it to work.
Her lack of specialized knowledge has been hugely valuable to me over the years. If I test a new product, I can troubleshoot it almost without thinking. I might not even notice a glitch that could cause major hassles for an end consumer because the fix is second-nature to me. On the other hand, if my wife can’t get a product to work, the first thing she does is call me up and yell at me, which is a great incentive to get our products as flawless as possible.
Several years ago she was relocating her stained-glass studio to California from our former home on the East Coast. She was a little nervous about the drive. Luckily, I had just been given the first working model for the latest GPS device that HP was about to go into production on. I gave her a quick lesson, and off she went. Three days later she calls me from the road, almost speechless with rage. The GPS looked great and had the lasted hardware features anyone could want. What it didn’t have was accurate maps. Every time my wife searched for rest stops, it came up empty.
When she finally made it out west, she met me for lunch at the HP cafeteria. The head of our division that developed the product came up and asked her what she thought. Her response? “Well, it was clearly designed by a guy; I stopped at every crummy gas-station bathroom between here and Kentucky!” The GPS was super fast, looked great, but had completely missed the mark on why people buy GPS devices, which is based almost purely the quality of the maps. Great hardware can’t compensate for faulty software.
The GPS device failed the wife test, and it had failed my test too. It was sent back to the drawing board.
There are two ways to uncover these kinds of potential annoyances in your new or existing products. One is to observe your customers and see what they are doing with your product and what their experience with it is. The other is, use the product yourself. Either way, you need to be fanatical about constantly improving the product and getting rid of the problems you uncover. Keep in mind that I’ve observed major differences between how men and women handle these issues. Guys have ego wrapped up in their new devices; they won’t let the gadget win. A woman will give it three chances; if she tries to use a new product three times and it doesn’t work, she’ll take it back to the store because she doesn’t have any interest in fighting with the product and winning. Men are much more likely to keep tinkering with the device and, if all else fails, stick it in the garage and forget about it. If it doesn’t work for a woman, she’ll let you know, and you’ll have a returned product on your store shelves. This is one of the reasons I rely so heavily on the wife test; my wife is a zero-tolerance consumer. If you don’t have a zero-tolerance consumer, you need to find one and embrace them. Have them test your products and give you the unvarnished truth about your products’ real usefulness and value.