Developing New Products with Less Guesswork

Point: Use technology to get real-time, full-time feedback from users

Story: Designing new products seems like a guessing game: which features do users want? In the early days, engineers had to guess. Then came market research: asking people which features they’d like to have or which they prefer from among the choices. Of course, users often have difficulty articulating what they want.

Next, some companies hired ethnographers to observe users in action. Software maker Intuit, for example, sent software engineers to watch how users tried to use accounting software. Intuit’s QuickBooks succeeded because its developers had watched users struggle with traditional accounting software and solved the difficulties they were having.

Other companies built usability labs, which have the advantage of measurement but are in controlled settings. Ethnographic techniques and usability labs improve upon market research, but they are expensive and can only watch a small sample of users for a short time.

Now, technology lets companies go one better. Software companies who host their applications in the cloud can see what customers are doing – in real time, all the time. They can see which features really get used and which don’t. They can notice if users hit the “undo” button frequently, which suggests that the feature isn’t doing what users expect it to do. Sam Shillance, co-creator of Writely, found that what users of his word processing tool wanted most was a way to let several people edit a document together. (The Writely app was bought by Google and is now in Google Docs). Finally, as new types of users adopt the product or as new uses arise, developers can continue to adapt their software from the stream of feedback of usage patterns.


  • Think about how you can put more of your product or service? on the web or in cloud media so that you can watch user behavior.
  • Look for evidence of frustration (e.g., use of “Undo,” help requests, problem reports)
  • Watch which features users use first, and keep those simple. That will make your product easy to adopt and will reduce first-use frustration.
  • Improve the functionality of the most-used features.
  • De-emphasize (or rework) the least-used features.

For further information: The Netbook Effect by Clive Thompson

1 Comment »Capital, How-to, New Product Development

One Response to “Developing New Products with Less Guesswork”

  1. Steve Todd Mar 20th 2009 at 09:59 am 1

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your comment pointing me here. My company (EMC) is focusing on innovation in regards to providing INFORMATION STORAGE within and from the cloud. I haven’t thought too much about putting applications in the cloud; it’s a refreshing perspective. In fact, I see much overlap. For example, we have usability labs to watch people configure information storage systems. The theory is that by providing information storage from the cloud, businesses become free from the complex and massive task of managing their ever-growing data repositories.

    Thanks again for your comment!