Fed up with creating products no one wants? Then change this one thing.

August 11, 2021 14 Comments

Software programmers have suffered many ills...

Imagine investing the best part of a year, developing an amazing product.  You take no breaks, no holidays, no family time.  Intense coding like your life depended on this new product.  And when it’s ready, you are excited to showcase your new product to customers.  

But nobody is interested.  You can’t even get a customer to do a pilot run.

It hurts. And I have been there a few times.

In theory, most programmers have the technical ability to develop a better Facebook or Uber.  Yet, when programmers do venture out on their own, their creations don’t seem so amazing to customers.

 

In theory, most programmers have the

technical ability to develop a better Facebook or Uber. 

 

Why does this happen?  I went looking for answers.

I did some research.  I went ahead to do a master's degree in Strategy & Innovation at Oxford.  I did lots of reading.  And then I noticed something.

This one thing seemed to make the difference between creating breakthrough products and products that fail.  In this post, I will be sharing this one thing I found in the hopes it helps you think through your next product idea.

What is this one really important thing?   

 

Interestingly, the answer begins with a question. 

 

What do you believe about the future?

How you answer this question can be the difference between creating breakthrough products.

This question goes beyond our hopes and aspirations for the future.   It goes beyond the vision you have for your life.   The answer to this question is based on having a clear picture of what our world looks like in the future.

Your beliefs about the future hold the key to creating truly groundbreaking products.  Products that can become huge commercial successes.  Products that can change the world.

However, as programmers, we are not really wired to be modern day prophets 

We are wired to focus on fixing today’s bugs.  We are wired to focus on solving today’s customer problems We are wired to focus on today.

Unfortunately, the value we can derive from today’s products is quite limited.

 

Programmers are wired to focus on today. Unfortunately, the value we can derive

from products that solve today’s problems is quite limited.

 

As Henry Ford (the great car maker) once said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’. If Henry Ford had tried to solve today’s problems, he would not have developed his groundbreaking automobile.  Founders that have strong beliefs about the future, have been able to capture immense value from their products.  Another great example is Apple.  

The real substance of Steve jobs genius was not a product, a plan or technology know how.  Steve Jobs' real genius stemmed from his beliefs and expectations about future customer tastes.  Steve Jobs believed that in the future, consumers would pay a premium for ease of use, reliability, and elegance in computing and digital devices. (Zenger 6)

 

Since the release of its first Macintosh computer in 1984, Apple has been able to capture the value of compounding magnitude by designing products based on this belief of the future.   Apple has continued to create products customers did not know they needed until they were launched. 

 

Founders that have strong beliefs about the future,

have been able to capture immense value from their products

 

                                                   The most important future to focus on

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

The future is too broad a concept to predict in its entirety. 

However, for product development,  we should focus on predicting future customer needs

 

What we believe customers want in the future guides decisions on

what products we need to develop today.  The future guides what skills

we need to learn today.  The future guides what partnerships we need to make

today. The future guides the work we need to do today.

 

We need to stop looking for solutions to today’s problems.   

We need to start thinking about customer needs in the future. 

 

Programmers have to learn to stop thinking in solution mode.  We need to stop looking for solutions to today’s problems.   We need to  start thinking about customer needs in the future.  But programmers are not necessarily wired for abstract futuristic thinking.  So what do we do? 

Do we resign to our fate and leave the future thinking to the likes of Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos?

 

I don’t believe so. 

 

First of all, there are many examples of software engineers who coded their way to the top.  Examples like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (facebook), Jack Dorsey (Twitter and Square).  We also have examples closer to homes like Onyekah Akumah (Farmcrowdy and PlentyWaka) and Shola Akinlade (Paystack).  

 

Secondly, as with any skill, you can train yourself to be a futuristic thinker.  I will be sharing 4 principles for predicting future customer needs..   And if you are able to combine anticipating future customer needs with your technical know-how, then you also can create breakthrough products.

4 principles for anticipating future customer needs

1. Cut-me Soap Customers have a part to play in the future

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

 

In every market, there is a group of customers called the Cut-me Soap customers.  These are customers that desperately desire to use the mainstream products but are not able to because of price or complexity.

In his book, The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen called this set of customers as Underserved customers.

In the future, cut-me soap customers will jump at any new product that provides a similar benefit as mainstream products but without the high price tag or complexity.

 

In the future, cut-me soap customers will jump at any new product that provides a similar benefit

as mainstream products but without the high price tag or complexity.

 

Let’s take the example of Farmcrowdy in Nigeria.  

Many people saw the opportunity in Agriculture in Nigeria, but not many had the capital, time, or expertise to go into farming.  This set of customers were underserved until Farmcrowdy came along.

Farmcrowdy provided a simple technology product that let underserved customers invest in farms without requiring the huge capital outlay or expertise.    From inception, Farmcrowdy enjoyed massive success and was always oversubscribed for its products.

 

2. Today’s New and Clunky technology gets better in the future

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

I remember one of our epic product failures at Cousant. 

As far back as 2014, we had developed an email Chatbot for making payments, transferring money, and buying airtime.  We called it MailPay.   It was not perfect but it worked and was convenient for end users.

We tried unsuccessfully to market this new product to all the big banks in Nigeria.  But no one could see past its limitations at the time. So after 2 years, we dropped the product and moved on. 

 

Since then, the technology for developing chatbots has greatly improved and many of the same banks have acquired banking and payments chatbots.

 

In the future, today’s new and clunky technology gets better. Customers that shun a new but imperfect technology today can still be adopters tomorrow.

 

Whenever a new technology is introduced into any market, it is usually still in an imperfect phase.  There are usually still a number of issues to be addressed.  And customers usually cannot see past the issues except for a few early pioneers.  But that does not mean the technology’s use case is not viable.  With time comes the perfection of the product and use case.

In the future, today’s new and clunky technology gets better. Customers that shun a new but imperfect technology today can still be adopters tomorrow.  

Before you  write off a new technology/product because it is clunky, consider if you can be the one to make the key improvements that will get customers banging on your door in the future.

3. Old Technologies can learn new tricks in the future

Photo by Vladimir Soares on Unsplash

The product that is rejected today can find acceptance tomorrow in a new market or domain.  Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) is a great example.

USSD was introduced to the Nigerian market with the establishment of the GSM network.  At the time USSD messaging was relegated to simple use cases for checking data and airtime credit  balance.  It certainly was not seen as a revenue generating service for telecom operators.  But things changed when USSD messaging was introduced to the Banking industry.  

USSD was a game changer for the Banking industry.  Suddenly, this overlooked technology became an overnight success and generated huge revenues for the Banks and telecoms companies.  Local software companies like Vanso enjoyed immense success by providing complementary software products/services that enabled USSD Banking.

 

...some of those forgotten products that are languishing in your git repository may still find use in a totally different industry or domain.

Products that are rejected or ignored in one industry or domain can find wide acceptance in a different industry/domain.  

For programmers, this means that some of those forgotten products that are languishing in your git repository may still find use in a different industry or domain.  With a few tweaks and some understanding of other industries, you may yet succeed in creating a breakthrough product.

 

3. Old Technologies can learn new tricks in the future

Photo by Sebastian Scholz (Nuki) on Unsplash

I know a software company in the US that makes tons of money by being the first to learn how to develop apps/plug-ins for any new social media platform or device.    Within the first few weeks of the launch of any new platform, their team figures out how to develop apps for the platform.  They were one of the first few companies to develop Apps for customers when the Apple iPad was first launched.

Their strategy is based on a simple fact.

Many of today’s newly launched technologies require complementary apps, add-ons

and plugins in the future to make them more user-friendly.

 If a newly launched social media platform gains traction in the future,  customers will always require complementary products/add-ons/plug-ins to maximize their use of the platform.  This is why products like HootSuite which help users schedule and post content on Facebook are successful.  This is why Apps like Evernote that help users take notes across devices are successful. 

For programmers, this means you need to keep an eye on newly launched platforms, social media, and devices.  Many of today’s newly launched technologies require complementary apps, add-ons, and plugins in the future to make them more user friendly.

How to Start

It is not easy to change the way you think or assess opportunities.  And I know it can be difficult to suddenly start trying to predict customer needs in the future?  

However, you can start with just one principle. See if you are able to craft a belief about future customer needs using just one of the principles.  Don’t worry about getting it right.  No one can really be 100% sure of the future.   With time comes clarity and a sharper picture of the future.

 

I look forward to hearing about the amazing products you are working on based on these principles.  

References

Zenger, Todd. “What is the Theory of Your firm?” Harvard Business Review, June 2013, p. 6. HBR.org.