Marketing 101 : The Myth of Intended Use
Last updated: 8/7/2002; 7:04:30 AM
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Marketing 101 : The Myth of Intended Use

NOTE : This essay is intended for arrogant product managers, arrogant product marketing managers and arrogant engineers who think they know how their customers will use the products they create.

It's been apparent to me for some time that what we, as product managers, marketers and engineers, intend for our products to be used is nothing but a myth.  Period.  We honestly don't know what people do with our products until they get out into the world and customers do what they do.  Or as I like to refer to it:

"No Product Survives Contact with the Customer"

Let's talk about this a bit and illustrate it with examples.  But we should start with some facts about the product planning process:

  1. Product development is mostly done in a vacuum away from customers.  Sure you start from a MRD often (that's "Marketing Requirements Document", a core product planning document).  And that's built from potential customer input or market research.
  2. The MRD is rarely updated during the development process. 
  3. The engineers often rarely read the MRD after the initial product planning stage is completed.  Instead it's translated into engineering documents and specs.
  4. But … The intent of the feature is often lost.

The "intent" here is a key issue.  When an engineering spec says "Product must have full text search".  The engineers go and build that.  What is often missing is the intention of how that affects the problem at hand being solved.  The loss of intent, coupled with the just plain whackiness of customers, leads to the examples shown below.


Here are some examples of how products are used in ways that their developers didn't anticipate.

  1. I spent yesterday on a sales call to the NRC and the colleague with me mentioned that his laptop had a DVD drive.  Now I've always thought the real use of these was avoiding pay per view fees in hotels.  There's no way it's to run DVD data discs (I have about 3 of these).  Or it's for games.  NOPE!  His comment was "I give it to the kids on car trips and they can watch movies".  Amazing.  $3,000 worth of Dell hardware to amuse the kids.  Even better – since it's a work device, he can write it off.  And, while they do have minivans with in seat players:
  2. Those can't be written off
  3. Those can't go into Grandma's House or the hotel or anywhere else
  4. If those break, it's a big deal to get fixed.  A laptop warranty costs $300 for 3 years on average.

  5. My first real customer for our hypertext product 1987 released in 1987 was the U.S. EPA and what they did was this:
  6. Paperless documentation for underground fuel storage tanks (we anticipated this type of application)
  7. Used hypertext links to create what amounted to a forward chaining expert system that guided the user to the right material.  The links where question and answer oriented and the net effect was that of a branching decision tree.  That shipped in 1988 on floppy disc and I still haven't seen anyone else adopt that technique as a navigational aid.
  8. They used our comment link feature (think of a JavaScript new window popped up when you click on a link) which we intended as a short expansion to offer a complete revision of the original legal content with fully detailed PLAIN ENGLISH explanations.  We had to even bump our maximum window size restrictions to allow this (this was a graphical DOS app, hey – it was 1987 code, so there weren't overlapping windows)

  9. We built the product I was demonstrating yesterday to the NRC as an "Alerting and Auditing" package in the days post 9/11/2001 to help government agencies audit, via email, the quantities on hand of sensitive materials.  There is also a simple email alert feature to make notification easier than faxing people (fax and mail is the current approach).  To understand the auditing feature, think about being a nuclear power plant and receiving a secure email with an embedded form that let you indicate that "Yes I do have all 1,235 millicuries of Strontium 90 on hand that I told you about last month" and you'll get it.  This product, TrackiT, looks like an additional application for it will be not just bulk alerts – but alerts where the recipient is required to indicate that they actually READ the material. 

The single best tip I can give product developers and product marketers is to really, really listen to your customers.  What they are doing with your product, or as I've sometimes referred to it myself – "how they are perverting our creation", is always damn interesting, always different from the intention you had – and utterly rewarding if you just dump your preconceptions.  I like nothing better than dragging an engineer out to see a customer.  It always changes how they think about the problem space.  Recommended.

PS – And, yes Virginia, I even wore a suit, tie and dress shoes to this demo.  For readers that know me personally, you'll be shocked to learn that I wore socks (the last full time job I had, I showed up for a January 17th interview, snow on the ground, about 6 degrees out, without socks; needless to say they at least remembered me and I did get the job).  However the suit and tie were changed out of when we gassed up the car to resume my normal attire of shorts / hawaiian shirt  and teva sandals.  This was about all of 7.3 minutes after security cleared us to leave the building.

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