man taking part in a design thinking exercise
Product lifecycle design offers a vital opportunity to positively impact customer experience, yet many companies ignore this area PHOTO: edulabsde

Companies today have become well aware of the critical impact customer experience has on their profitability and business performance, putting in place ongoing efforts to improve those CX capabilities.

Yet, focusing on opportunities to impact customer experience during the design stage of a product’s life cycle remains a vital but overlooked aspect for many organizations.

Customer-centric product life cycle management (PLM) is a trend that is attracting growing interest, as companies look for ways to differentiate their product offers. In particular, more and more products are becoming connected devices by incorporating internet of things (IoT) capabilities.

Design Thinking and Customer Empathy Maps

That growth in connected devices is, in turn, increasing customers’ expectations about the kind of support they receive, as well as when and how companies provide that support. What’s more, it’s widely understood that customer expectations for proactive support will be rapidly increasing in tandem with customers’ exposure to the capabilities of connected devices.

The implication is that for companies, it will become more and more important to meet customers’ increased expectations from the moment a product is released until the time it is removed or recycled.

Accordingly, leading firms are using techniques like design thinking and customer empathy maps early in the product development process to change the way they design new products.

UK Design Council - Design Thinking Model

Beyond Morale - Customer Empathy Map

Let Customer Needs Drive R&D 

While you might think that new product development methods have always focused on customer needs, that is actually not the case. In fact, many times companies have developed products based on demand from influential customers, or in response to products released by competitors.

What’s more, new product development functions have often been distinct and isolated, with limited ongoing interaction taking place after launch other than product improvements or feature additions. And because new product development functions have been isolated from operations, they have had little appreciation for the challenges experienced in product support or end-of-life and recovery.

innovation management

Taking all Customer Touchpoints Into Consideration 

Progressive firms have expanded the scope of their new product development processes by employing design thinking as a strategy. Where in the past, new product development processes focused on getting products to market, today’s companies recognize the importance of considering all customer touchpoints, starting with input, moving to innovation management, and ending with recycling or reuse of a product.

So what does this discussion about new product development have to do with customer experience? Well, everything, really. Organizations sometimes use the terms ‘front office’ and ‘back office’ when thinking about customer experience, where front office refers to what is provided to the customer and back office means the internal processes and tools utilized to provide those front office capabilities.

A major driver for my work with clients is helping them move their customer experience capabilities from their current state to a future state, with the twin goals of simplifying back office activities and better meeting customers’ front-office expectations. These projects are complex and involve changes to business processes, IT applications and staff functions such as skills training and redefining roles and responsibilities. Because of the magnitude of change, these projects also contain relatively high elements of risk and often require more time than initially budgeted.

The reality, though, is that organizations have little choice but to embark on transformation projects, because if their capabilities to deliver the kinds of customer experiences expected by their existing customers aren’t improved, they risk losing business.

A CX-Driven Product Life Cycle Design Strategy

However, for new products being released, there is a much better alternative: intentionally integrate the customer experience across all expected touchpoints into the new product development process. To understand the potential power of making this shift, ask yourself:

  • What if we developed a product and the customer experience process for it at the same time?
  • What if our product development process incorporated design to make service management and product reuse or recycling a positive experience for the customer?
  • What if our product design focused just as much on our customers’ ongoing needs while using a product as it did on using product features, capabilities and pricing to secure the initial sale?

The move to embrace customer experience and design thinking as an essential element in their new product development processes provides businesses with the opportunity to create new business models that deliver the quality of experiences customers expect. For example, Volvo changed its approach to innovation with a new platform that offered owners enhancements after they purchased a vehicle.

Another example is Harley-Davidson. In a recent study on digital maturity (registration required) conducted jointly by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte, Harley-Davidson VP and CIO David Cotteleer pointed out that connected vehicles demand a stringent cross-functional approach to design and manufacture. “It’s no longer just about product engineering,” he noted. “It is about software design, system integration and other elements that fall outside traditional product engineering. Multiple functions in the company are now realizing that what used to be their domain is now also a domain of technology.”

Don’t Be Late to the Design Thinking Party

If you’re in an organization that is still waiting for more proof that changes must be made to incorporate customer experience into the product design process, you may already by late to the party and quite possibly, your future business performance could be negatively impacted.

That means there’s little to lose — and much to gain — by committing to integrate customer experience planning into your overall product design process. After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Devoting more attention to CX is a step your customers will thank you for taking today.