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Solving Product Design Puzzle by Startups

Focused on Startups, but equally applicable for new product introduction by established organizations

Startups are synonymous with childhood. Always full of enthusiasm and bubbling with energy!! How well the startup ecosystem matures and churns out successful startups will define the growth of India into the next orbit of a developed nation from a developing nation.

Sandeep Sethi,
Leadership Team at ICICI Bank

Understanding customer needs and creating a product cut out for customers is the single biggest challenge in the life of startups. Overcoming this challenge gives the thrill to founders and that’s what bring success and glory. It will not be an exaggeration to state that successful entrepreneurs are the ones who overcome these challenges while getting thrill solving them.

Different startups face different issues ranging from funding, suitability of idea, co-founders experience, diversity of experience and marketability just to state a few high-level challenges. For internet-based solutions, ensuring security from hackers is a new big challenge. Well, I am going to limit my views on how startups can ensure product fitment and build basic service proposition with minimal time investment right from the word go!!

I strongly recommend building basic service proposition as part of product design only. In the age of social media where customers immediately try to reach out to Twitter or other means of social media to vent their anger, even the slightest of the issues have potential to build negative public opinion about the product. Thus, it carries the risk of not even giving a chance to recover.

The investors and mentors to startups always say that startups must quickly go to market and let the customer decide. Fail quick, fail fast is another phrase most commonly used. This should not be misunderstood as go to market without basic planning and removal of clearly visible flaws. Improvement will of course be a journey with multiple iterations even if we put our best foot forward, but by no means have we to first fail and then improve. If just three days of effort can uncover a lot of challenges, it is better to take that pause for deep breath and then start running. I find these as common issues while engaging with multiple startups and hence thought of sharing some of the age-old proven tools and techniques. It’s not that these techniques are applicable for startup world only. Any new product introduction even by existing companies should ideally be going through the lens of these crucial steps. These have been well adopted in different industries with equally convincing results. As and when any new sector emerged, these golden tools have proved their worth. I humbly submit that I am going to borrow heavily from the knowledge I gained by reading and while practicing in the fields of Innovation and Quality at some of the wonderful institutions which have earned mark for themselves in their respective businesses. Of course, this is supplemented by the insights I gained while engaging with multiple startups at incubators, accelerators and exhibitions while evaluating them for solving our business problems or investments. I am convinced that with little effort, the startup world can take benefit from them and start their initial journey with much more confidence. Though the article is titled for Start-ups, the contents are equally relevant for product design in any organization – be it a start-up or an established organization.

“Quality cannot be inspected or tested into products. It has to be built into the product,” Dr. W E Deming, the world-renowned Quality Guru.

Let’s first put to rest debate, if any that structured way of doing things has much higher probability of leading to better results time and again than an occasional stroke of genius. This can be considered for debate on Innovative products/services but certainly beyond even discussions on building Quality into the products for which there is no alternative yet. However, focused efforts on building Quality into Design using structured Quality Tools is normally associated with large corporates or OEMs. It is not that they all use it but that’s what the general impression is.

On the other hand, perception about mid-size corporates, small organizations or component suppliers is that they normally adopt Quality Control. The reasons could be many such as lack of patience, lack of trust on tools, lack of knowledge, lack of funds, etc. Again, it is believed, that they adopt the disciplined way to problem solving only if, either they are really progressive and forward thinking, or their OEM forces them to do so.

On their own, dedicating resources working towards continuous improvement, or building Quality into the product from day 1, as Deming suggested, normally looks costly affair to them or it is complete blindness towards this aspect. It is also true that irrespective of the type of organization, not all the employees in any organization are exposed in equal intensity to the beautiful world of Quality Tools available to suit various purposes.

Startups today are being setup by founders from vast age and experience range. So we see founders starting off while still in college, founders with 2-3 year experience, founders starting after quitting their middle management jobs and even those near the end of their corporate carrier. None of them want to miss out on the aspiration of having something on their own and the excitement associated with it. Even if they have been business leaders, however, coming from the same pool of companies, most of them have not got exposure to quality tools even though they might have exceptionally strong ability to identify opportunity or closing deals. Hence the question of using these does not arise.

Remember, the reason for blowing up of Shuttle Challenger was attributed to a seemingly simple looking area – an inexpensive, commonly used but crucial component called O-Ring seals. Hence, an extra effort and not taking lightly even simple looking things is the key to a good design, particularly so if it does not take plenty of time.

It is true that the perfect area to start is with the one that solves customer pain. It is this premise of having identified the customer pain point that sets off the startups. Never-the-less, there are many tools in Quality that can help the startups in thinking through from various aspects and hence creating an offering which has far greater chances of satisfying the customers. I will agree with my Quality fraternity if they say that there are more than a dozen tools e.g. Kano Model, Mistake Proofing, etc, which can help, but idea here is to just share most impactful at this stage because one thing that startups typically don’t have at their disposal is the luxury of time!! So applying Pareto principle (80:20 rule) for startups, which tools are most recommended for startups to start using from the very beginning of their journey?

In my view, before we jump to the name of tools, we need to understand what is it that startups want to know to be confident that they are a right fit. Any startup needs to answer following 3 key questions from design aspect, ideally before launch, or as a reality check if already launched.

1. How well is my product aligned to customer requirements?

2. Mistakes will happen, how can I pre-empt what can go wrong and accordingly have a mitigating or quick response plan if things do not go as planned?

3. Is my product only technically sound or is it easy to use also?

Aligned to each of questions, though there can be multiple tools which can be leveraged to fully answer above, but as mentioned previously, the must-use quality tools in my view are:

1. Quality Function Deployment (QFD) that answers – How well is my product aligned to customer requirements?

2. Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) that answers – How can I pre-empt what can go wrong and accordingly have a mitigating or quick response plan if things do not go as planned?

3. Customer Experience Journey Mapping (CxJM) that answers – Is my product only technically sound or is it easy to use also?

Using each of these tools answers multiple questions. They look too simple and commonsensical, but the simplicity belies its power. Another beauty is that none of them require any software support or knowledge of statistics!! While these tools are a great help, by no means I intend to undermine the importance of people involved in using them. For a tool is like a brush. A brush in the hands of an artist vs a kid will have different results. However, the point not to be missed is that even a great artist today would have somewhere started using it as a novice only. So don’t worry about perfection from the tools immediately but as you use them, you will get better insights and get better results.

Luckily, today the knowledge in not limited by physical access to experts and is freely available on internet in the form of presentations, case studies and videos. I urge you to Google on these tools to get comfortable for using them. While this might consume a couple of hours, but you end up saving many more!! Else in our hurry to go to market, we should not become another example in the graveyard of startups who, otherwise, very well remember the story written by Franklin Benjamin that details “For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost” but conveniently ignore it when the time comes to use that!! The three listed above provide focus to our efforts and more importantly those crucial few moments to stitch it right!!……… Right??

To be continued…     

Currently Sandeep is Group Head – People and Process Optimization, as General Manager. He has been in various leadership roles at ICICI Bank in the areas of Quality, Innovation, Infrastructure Facilities Management, Business Process Re-engineering, Branch Customer Experience & Service Improvement. A 6 Sigma MBB, he is also a Lean Manufacturing expert and brings rich experience of working in Manufacturing, Business Process Outsourcing and Banking while working with organizations like LG Electronics, Videocon, HCL Hewlett Packard, Wipro and now ICICI Bank.                                   

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