It’s difficult to develop products that truly deliver for the customer.
Too often development teams huddle together to come up with ideas in a vacuum, and build what they believe are amazing products with incredible features that will tackle customer challenges or unmet needs—and then once their product or service is built, it misses the mark. It doesn’t truly solve a customer problem, or it’s loaded with features that aren’t needed, wanted or helpful. Well-intentioned time, effort, skills and resources end up wasted on innovation for the sake of nothing but innovation.
There’s a better way, and it can play a central role in a future where innovation always delivers for the customer. It’s called Working Backwards, a tried-and-true business innovation model that’s fuelled the development of Amazon products used by consumers and businesses around the world, from the Kindle to Prime Video to numerous new solutions used daily by healthcare providers, financial institutions, manufacturers and many others.
I know it works because we use it every day, and with great success, at the UBC Community Health and Wellbeing Cloud Innovation Centre (CIC).
The approach involves first tackling what’s traditionally the final step in bringing a new product or service to market—writing the press release to launch it.
That might sound counterintuitive, but before Amazon commits to building a new product or service, team leaders write the press release, clearly defining the problem, the solution and the customer. Often this simple step highlights gaps in thinking or errant assumptions that can drain resources and result in fancy product features that no customer wants to spend money on.
This step involves asking five core questions:
- Who is the customer?
- What is the customer problem or opportunity?
- What is the most important customer benefit?
- How do you know what customers need or want?
- What does the customer experience look like?
It sounds almost too simple, but it’s highly effective. The process compels the team to answer these questions thoughtfully, clearly articulate the benefit to the customer and to focus in on what makes the product valuable and different from others already in market. It’s a very useful tool to provide focus and to carve out a clear path forward—by going backwards.
Only once these questions are effectively and compellingly answered, and it’s clear the product or service solves a real problem, the project moves into development. That initial press release serves as the guiding light throughout the process, and it’s continuously refined throughout the development stage as more assumptions are uncovered or rebuked, and the product is prepared for primetime.
It’s a simple approach that can be easily applied to your next product idea. It will help you reap the benefits of a solution that your customer is truly clamouring for—and it keeps your budget under control since not a single moment is spent in development until you’re certain your product or service is a winner. It may even help you realize that your actual customer – the one who will use your product the most—isn’t who you expected in the first place.
At the UBC CIC, we’ve used the process while developing several products that have provided solutions to pressing needs in the health-care sector in British Columbia.
The partnership between AWS and a dedicated group of multi-disciplinary UBC students—they study computer science, engineering, politics, linguistics and the arts, to name just a few areas of expertise—is focused on solving problems using AWS’s cloud technology and the Working Backwards methodology.
We worked backwards when we developed machine learning models that have helped identify common COVID-19 elements that assist health-care workers—the customers, in this instance—in better analyzing cases, resulting in better treatments and outcomes. We took that same approach with our Open Virome project to prepare the global medical and research community—the customers—with the tools and knowledge to better respond to the next pandemic.
On non-pandemic fronts, the approach was also central to building a prototype for a rules-based algorithm that can predict MRI priority levels and assist radiologists as they schedule MRIs for their patients. Our talented undergraduate students built that tool in just a few weeks, and it’s now being tested as a pilot project in the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
There’s lots more coming up that we can credit to a Working Backwards approach. Projects in development include a 911 call centre prototype that would demonstrate how call-takers—the customers—who are dealing with non-emergency calls grapple with myriad standard operating procedures; and a visualization tool that would allow university students living in residence to determine the best time to visit campus cafeterias to avoid high-traffic times.
None of these projects started in a vacuum. By starting with a press release and working back from there, these top-notch ideas progressed from brainstorming sessions to useful, practical solutions to some pressing problems—proving once again that Working Backwards almost unfailingly illuminates the path forward.
The next time your team sits down to take the first step on its next great product, start at the end instead of the beginning. Your customers will thank you for it.
Coral Kennett is the Digital Innovation Lead, Cloud Innovation Centers at Amazon Web Services.
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