This is a guest post by Patrick Sweet, P.Eng.
I was recently listening to an interview with Ben Brenton, the Chief Innovation Officer of Snap-on Tools on the Everyday Innovator Podcast. During the interview, he said something quite profound about the way he spent his time. He said that he spends approximately four days a week on things related to customer interaction. That means 80% of his time is focused on his customers. He attributed this focus on the customer to being a major contributor to Snap-on’s success in developing new, innovative products.
I think there’s a very important lesson here for engineers: more often than not, innovation is sparked not from individual brilliance or “Eureka!” moments, but from a keen awareness of the problems, pains and fears of the people you are designing for.
Focusing on the customer leads to innovation
In other words, focusing on the customer is the key to innovation and excellent design. Brilliant ideas are only brilliant if they actually help the people you’re trying to help, and the only way to know how to help someone is to interact with him. This is even more important when you’re designing for a target audience that you’re not even a part of.
All too often, engineers run with designs that they are so confident in that they don’t stop to check with anyone along the way to validate their ideas and assumptions. When this happens, prospective customers might not see the product until late in the development process. If this happens, and you learn the customer doesn’t like what you’ve designed, you’re in big trouble. By that time, it’s too late to make changes without significant cost and schedule implications. This can be a death knell for a new product.
Lessons learned in product design
The podcast reminded me of a time I made this exact mistake. Once, during my undergraduate studies, our design professor asked the class to design a new classroom. Each team went off to complete their design, and one week later we all presented our work. Unfortunately, we all failed the exercise. Miserably.
The reason we failed is that nobody bothered to ask the professor about what kind of classroom was supposed to be designed. A classroom for kindergarteners, a classroom for ballet students, and a classroom for people training to become auto mechanics would all, presumably, look very different. The professor withheld this detail on purpose, baiting students to ask him for more information. Not only had we not consulted the end user about the way they would use a classroom, we didn’t even bother to ask who the end user was. Whoops.
The trouble is, engineers and companies still make this mistake. Innovators need to be keenly aware of the fact that success in innovation and product development is a function, first and foremost, of how well you understand the problem you are trying to solve. Furthermore, you cannot possibly understand the problem without consulting the person who actually has that problem.
Moving forward, I challenge you to stop before you begin your next design and think through whom you’re designing for. Is there any way you can reach out to them? Making an effort to become customer-centric can lead to drastically better designs, and a much more successful career as an engineer.
About Patrick Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA is a product and engineering management consultant, speaker, and the creator of EngineeringAndLeadership.com. He helps engineering teams and OEMs create profitable products, boost productivity, and manage complexity. You can reach Patrick at email@example.com or @engileader.
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To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success