Product Development: How and Why You Should Include Your Customers

  •    Erica is a writer, content strategist and children's book author. Her work has been published in Forbes, Fortune and the Wall Street Journal.

Developing physical products is an iterative process — you'd be lucky to find a creator who got the design and manufacturing 100% correct on their first try. That's where customers can come in. Enthusiastic early adopters are a prime audience for testing and giving feedback on early product concepts and prototypes.

Proceed with caution, though. Not all customer participation is helpful. Recent studies show that customer input during product ideation and prototyping is beneficial, but involvement during product designing can affect speed-to-market and negatively impact product performance in the end. It's all about getting customer input at the right times.

Here are three ways to involve customers in product development to optimize the potential for product success after launch.

Polls and Surveys for Problems and Solutions

Design thinking and lean startup are two of the most-followed contemporary product development philosophies, and what they have in common is the concept that entrepreneurs must first start with what customers want. Both follow the general process of gathering insights, generating ideas and then building and iterating upon prototypes. All of that is possible through early customer interviews.

As a starting point, polls and surveys can help an entrepreneur understand key customer pain points. In lean startup workshops, where would-be entrepreneurs are led through the product development process, participants are encouraged to "get out of the building" to get true customer insights. Typically, teams must speak with at least 30 potential customers, either in-person, by phone or via digital media.

On top of one-on-one customer interviews, tools such as PinPoll, Google Forms and SurveyMonkey can help entrepreneurs generate responses from hundreds of potential customers. Regardless of how insights are gathered, it's important to dig in on existing problems and solutions. What do customers truly need, and how are they currently solving those problems? How might your product enhance their experiences?

Keep in mind the wise words of serial entrepreneur Steve Blank: "Customer discovery is a lot of listening, not a lot of talking."

Social Media for Instant Feedback

When I was developing a series of children's books about kid entrepreneurs last year, one of the most helpful audiences was the existing list of friends, family and early enthusiasts my illustrator and I had cultivated through pre-launch social media engagement.

We generated early user feedback on our series name, company logo, cover designs and story lines all using social media. One of my favorite experiences was reading early prototypes via Facebook Live video. Our early enthusiasts gave feedback on the illustrations, the stories overall and even specific words and phrases — all of which helped us improve the products before we sent the final designs to print.

Even before you begin designing specific products, you can use your own personal social media following to get insights. Or if you feel confident in the space you're developing, you can even start your product's business pages and invite your early enthusiasts to follow along on the product development journey there.

Testing Early Prototypes

If you're creating a physical product, please do not put in the full factory order straight from your initial designs. Order samples and test them yourself at the very least. Trust me, you will find defects or little details you can't stand. This is truly a must-do for physical product development. After getting our first book prototypes back, we actually ended up switching printers — there were too many issues to trust that the final product would turn out as we had wanted it.

For the full testing effect, though, have your customers test early prototypes. Early adopters jump at the opportunity to give feedback; they're invested in finding a solution for their problems, after all! Don't skip the opportunity to get their input.

If you're not including customers in your product development process, you're likely missing out on valuable opinions and insights that could transform your offerings. If "giving up control" scares you, know that there are many ways to involve customers, with the process ranging from customer-led to firm-led. Customer inclusion is all about finding better solutions — that's something every product developer should get behind.