OK to Great

Over time, ok products can become great products. I got reminded of this yesterday evening, when I looked at my new Brita water pitcher.

A few years ago, I used to own a Brita water filter. I liked the water it produced, but the system was somewhat clumsy and after while, I stopped using it. Recently, we bought a new filter. I have been using it for some six weeks now and simply love it. Here are photos of the old and new system:

Short summary of key changes:

  • Cartridge is shorter and wider. It filters water 2x as fast, at slightly lower quality
  • Extra lid on top for allowing easier re-fill of the pitcher
  • Electronic timer that tells you when to put a new cartridge in
  • Narrower form, so it fits in the door of the fridge
  • Lid that covers muzzle.

Basically, the new and the old system do the same thing: they filter tap water. I didn’t like the old system, I love the new one. What has changed?

What has changed this product from ok to great is a collection of small improvements. None of them alone would have made this a great product, but in combination, they do.

One additional comment that I have is that there are no additional changes to the system (that I can see) apart from the ones described. All features that Brita changed had a positive impact on the usability of the system. There is no clutter, no stuff that is annoying or in the way. And that is not just ok, but great.

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Be the Customer

BAAPutting yourself in your customer’s place is the key to good product planning, design, development, and also, marketing. If you cannot see your product and its marketing from a customer’s perspective, it is likely to not go very far. However, I think just seeing your products by putting yourself in the shoes of your customers, probably doesn’t go far enough. You should actually be the customer. What do I mean with that? Let’s use a few examples to illustrate this.

I am a frequent traveller at several of the UK airports. There are so many things wrong with these airports. Most of these problems are probably very easy to fix and would cost little money. But they still persist. Examples are:

  • No screens displaying departure status where people actually sit. Examples are the sitting areas in Heathrow and in Gatwick airport. Essentially, there are few screens where there are seats and where there are screens there are few seats. What is that good for?
  • Total lack of clarity surrounding what is to be done at the X-ray machines. Laptop in the bag or out? What about liquids? Do I need to take off my belt? How about my shoes? So, why are there no big boards that explain it to people? Why do different lanes operate different procedures?
  • Why are the drugstores selling only bottles that are larger than 100ml when you are not allowed to take them on the plane on your return trip? Why should I buy a 250ml bottle of shampoo just to throw it away two days later? Particularly when all customers are continuously looking for smaller bottles and asking for them?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about the airports. These are just examples I am using to make a point. Let’s use another, completely different example.

When Lou Gerstner joined IBM as CEO in 1993, the company was in huge trouble. It was at some point probably only a few quarters away from being either broken up or going bankrupt. You can read this very interesting story in Lou Gerstner’s book: “Who says Elephants can’t dance? Eventually, the company got turned around and today is very successful again. There are a number of important steps that were taken to get to that point. Read them up in the book. What is interesting for this article not what these steps were, but why these steps were implemented.

The major reason for why the company was turned around was that Lou Gerstner came to the company as an IBM customer. He didn’t actually understand the technology. Or the industry. Or the company itself. But he had been a senior executive at American Express for a long time and there, he was a very significant IBM customer. He actually understood what customers wanted because he was one. Using his experience as a customer, he turned the company around by refocusing IBM on customer needs. He basically rebuild the company in a way that he as a customer would have been happy with it.

So, the point of this article is not just to say that companies need to be customer focused. Of course they need to be and I also believe that most companies are customer focussed. The point I am making is that in order to be able to execute this, the people that operate the company have to have the customer experience themselves. They need to be the customers.

The easiest way to put yourself in your customers’ shoes is to be a customer.

I am sure that if BAA executives travelled just like their customers do, then their airports would be much better. I am also sure that if the people who worked at the airport used it as their customers do, the airport would work better. It took a customer of IBM to arrive to fix the company. Let’s hope BAA management fix the airports before that needs to happen.

Update: Heathrow Terminal 5 has opened today. Here are some impressions of the first users. I just love the comment about the Terminal not being very user friendly.

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