Research and Development: Looking for Hassles

By John Cashmore
January 1, 2007
COLUMN : Dealer Perspectives

Two major goals drive most new product development—the desire to reduce hassles (for manufacturers, installers and end users) and the desire to reduce costs, and they do not have to be mutually exclusive. 

In the last column I talked about getting out into the field and watching your customer’s customers install and use their fenestration products. This process is also known as conducting ethnographies, or, observational research. In the true sense, ethnography is generally a watching and recording process only, whereas in observational research, the lead research person may ask a few questions.

This type of research is a qualitative exercise. It will not yield a high group consensus that can be projected across your entire market. It can, however, uncover some kernels worth exploring further in your new product development process.

How does it work? You might, for example, watch installers put in a door or people opening and closing a window. You would bring together a variety of observational data, including notes, digital photography, video tapes, etc. But, what do you do with it all?

Look at the tapes, look at the photography and look at the notes. What actions does your audience repeat over and over again to modify or change the product they are working with or using? These are the seeds from which new products are borne. 

Data analysis is probably the most challenging aspect of the process. We are all biased as to what installers and/or users should do with our products. Put those thoughts in the back of your mind, for they will only confuse the issue and block the germination process. Above all, don’t correct their actions during the data collection process. This is especially difficult for research and development professionals.

This type of observational research is ideal for finding the hassle reducers. For example, let’s look at the problem of a crank on a casement window when the window treatment is to be horizontal blinds. These blinds go in and out of favor with interior designers, but a substantial number of homes have them. The typical “cranks” that are shipped with most casements protrude into the room about 3 inches. In order for the homeowner to operate the window, they have to lift the blinds, and when done, thread the crank through the closed blind or remove it and put it on the sill. 

Some manufacturers have solved the problem of protrusion into the room by supplying redesigned operators that fold away. These don’t have to be threaded into the room after the blind is down, but the blind still has to be lifted to operate the crank. Does the user/consumer still have a problem with operation of the window? Is there a new product opportunity still to be discovered? 

What if double-hung units are to be used with blinds? What does the homeowner have to do to open these units? Sure, it may not be difficult, but as I indicated in my last column, we’ve heard the consumer comment, “I don’t use those windows. They are too hard to open.” Most of you who read that probably thought the consumer was talking about the sash being too tight or some other operation problem with the unit itself. But as smart market development folks, we need to look at all reasons something “does not work” for the end user. Has the planner/dealer/architect put a double-hung over a sink? Believe it or not, that is the “true innovator’s” problem too. Can we assure end users that someone else won’t create “the hassle factor” for them?

Maybe not using these exact words, but I’ve heard more than one manufacturer in our industry convey, basically, “It’s not our problem—we make windows. If there are no problems covered by our warranty after they leave our factory, then that is all we can do.” This is a naïve thought, and frankly, the manufacturers of windows and components that say they are the “copy innovators” I spoke about in my last column.

Think about this when you think you make only what you make, or you install only what you install. What if Budweiser made beer only? They did their job—they put the beer in a bottle, capped the bottle and shipped it off. But what if the consumer doesn’t have a bottle opener handy and the beer is going to a tailgate party? He may pick another brand, because it has twist-off tops.

Watch some installers. Watch some consumers. You could be the first brand with the twist-off tops.

 

John Cashmore is president of Market Resource Associates, a supplier of market research services to the window, door and building products industries. Questions and comments from readers are welcome at john.cashmore@mraonline.com.