Thursday, May 17, 2007

Using Blogs for Product Development

Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of being a panelist at Capital City Communicators' Spring Seminar. The topic of discussion centered on how businesses have been using new media to build community and I was there to represent both PinPoint Performance Solutions and my business organization, Treasure Valley Consultants' Network. The panel included representatives from small to medium sized businesses in the Boise area. Large corporations such as Micron (NYSE:MU) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) were represented as well.

The conversation turned to how blogging has help our respective businesses. Two key points came from the representatives of the larger corporations during the discussion:

  1. Blogging has allowed them to focus on specific market segments. For example, Micron services many industries and they've created multiple blogs to appeal to multiple audiences. One particular blog is targeted toward the automotive industry while another is targeted toward the imaging industry. Blogging, to them, is about reaching vertical markets. These are the customers in the "long tail", so to speak. By taking this approach they know that the readers of their many different, yet highly focused blogs are customers most likely to buy from them.
  2. Blogging has provided a new channel for product development. For example, HP pays close attention to the number of blogs they have written by people within the walls of their company. They have what is known as an open blogging policy. Anybody within the company can write about anything provided they monitor their blog and respond to readers accordingly. Ideas for new products or product improvements has emerged out of these blogs.
I think the second point is a positive step toward new product development or product improvements. Blogs are a new avenue to gather user information such as needs and preferences. Support forums are another great tool to see where folks are having problems and learning from other users how they solved the problem.

A word of caution - if you think blogs and forums will take place of any user-centered design phase surrounding the development of your software or web applications. It's only a small part of it.

You still have to go out and talk to your end-users, observe them and find out how the jobs, tasks, work environment and context of the problem/obstacle they are trying to overcome fits into your overall design. Blogs and forums can't take care of this task for you. They are merely a resource and help point you in the direction of where you need to focus your user-centered design research.

I've written about this book before, but Anthony Ulwick's What Customers Want strongly discourages product developers from taking anything the end-user has to say about your current product or new product at face value. No offense to your end-users, but they probably don't know what they really need. They only tell you what they want and what they prefer, personally. They can't speak for the rest of your customers.

Blogs and forums hold a lot of potential for new product development, but remember they are just a small component or tool in the user-centered design process.

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