The road to customer dissatisfaction is paved with good intentions

While market research is worthwhile, it should observe what people do rather than what they say they do.

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood."

By Engel Schmidl

Thinking of rolling out a new product or service this year, something so ingenious it's bound to improve the lives of millions, generate untold wealth, and be universally lauded?

Without wanting to dampen your enthusiasm, you might just want to pause for a moment to compare the expectations of your amazing product or service to how consumers might receive it.

Each year, millions of products and services are launched. Some are wildly successful, most do the job, and many sink into obsolescence.

Then there are those unfortunate products or services that defy their makers' best intentions and become ridiculed or even reviled – the kind of product or service you might wish you'd never thought up let alone unleashed on the world.

Just ask MIT professor Ethan Zuckerman, who was one of the creators of online pop-up ads. Zuckerman and his colleagues at devised pop-ups in the late 1990s to help advertisers dissociate themselves from certain kinds of web pages. 

"Specifically, we came up with it when a major car company freaked out that they'd bought a banner ad on a page that celebrated anal sex. I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I'm sorry. Our intentions were good," Zuckerman writes in The Atlantic.

Product development can be an arduous process, with much thought and effort involved in bringing a new product or service to market. 

It can also be intoxicating and all-consuming, an element that brings with it a double-edged sword whereby the product creators can become so invested in an idea they see none of its potential flaws or entertain anyone else's doubts about the brilliance of their undertaking.

What needs to be top-of-mind for entrepreneurs and businesses thinking about releasing their latest idea to consumers in 2021 and beyond? How do you avoid the worst pitfalls of product development to launch something that fulfils its potential? What can you do to ensure you're not launching an absolute clunker?

The myth of the well-behaved consumer 

A good place to start, according to Bri Williams CPA, is by applying a bit of behavioural economics to your product idea. 

"If you're not using behavioural economics, you're missing a big subsection of the answers that you should be getting before you roll anything out," says Williams, a consumer behavioural specialist who has had extensive experience in product development with companies such as Sensis and Thomson Reuters.

Behavioural economics can explain why there might be an "empathy gap" between the intention you have for your product or service versus the way consumers perceive it, Williams says.

"Oftentimes we're so fixated on our own world as product designers that we box our expectations around that," Williams explains. 

Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman formulated and popularised many of the concepts underpinning behavioural economics, including the idea of System 1 and System 2 thinking in his 2012 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

"In behavioural economics language, we're using our System 2, we're thinking about this from all angles, deliberately and logically,” Williams explains. 

“Whereas, when we put something into the market, consumers often react to it using more System 1 processing, which is instinctive and emotional."

The upshot is that product creators may be so immersed in the minutiae that they fail to see the bigger picture of how their product might be perceived or even utilised. 

In the 1960s, American industrial designer Robert Propst set about attempting to humanise the modern office with his ideas for the “Action Office”. 

By the 1970s Propst’s ideas had been appropriated and altered to become the rigid cubicle design that dominated offices for decades, far removed from his original vision of liberating office workers. 

"The dark side of this is that not all organisations are intelligent and progressive," Propst said in an interview in 1998

"Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes."

Propst's remarks highlight that attributing purely rational or positive traits to your product's intended users can be problematic.

"My model for behavioural economics is that there are three reasons people don't do what you want them to: they're lazy, scared or overwhelmed," says Williams.

She suggests that those embarking on developing a new product ask four questions:

  • "Who am I trying to influence?"
  • "What do I want them to do?"
  • "What are they doing instead?"
  • "What is their context?"

She also cautions that while market research is worthwhile, it should observe what people do rather than what they say they do. 

"The caveat around market research is that it cannot only rely on self-reported behaviour."

The value in co-creating value

Product development has changed immensely since Henry Ford's apocryphal statement about colour choice: "You can have it [Ford Model T] in any colour as long as it's black." 

The information revolution has created consumers who now expect almost unlimited options from the products they use. 

Digital products and services have ushered in this era of choice and customisation. Consumers now expect to have a big say in how products look and function, with a select few product makers in the position of having the licence to do as they please. 

Customer-centric and even crowdsourced design have placed pressure on businesses to listen attentively to feedback, and pivot and tweak rapidly when required. 

With all the feedback product makers get from online and social media, making great products should be a cinch, right? Well, it's not always that simple, says Dr Suku Sukunesan, a social media analyst and senior lecturer in information systems at Swinburne University's Business School. 

Dr Sukunesan – who has consulted extensively on projects with TikTok, Twitter and Instagram – says companies can struggle with effectively gathering, interpreting and utilising the product data and feedback they receive online. 

Knowing where to look and what to listen for is crucial, but highly dependent on properly framing your feedback matrix. 

He says it all starts with picking the right social channels and then filtering for your target market. Then comes the tricky dance between maker and consumer, which is where the act of co-creating value begins. 

"You tease the market with ideas and get feedback without committing into the idea too much as it needs to evolve further," he says.

"Co-creating value allows the retailer to be customer-centric and grow the product. Different platforms may appreciate different value observed of the product and at times retailers may find that the value could be marketed differently to different customer groups. Moving away from the customer and being product-centric alone may not be wise as well. 

But engaging in a dialogue with your target customer is no guarantee of success. Co-creation is not always a graceful tango. It can turn ugly.

"Some products could be intended in a good manner, altruistic completely. Let's say it's to help some disadvantaged communities. But you find that co-creation might be hijacked for a higher gain and different value where it would not suit the original niche market anymore. And then it's actually outgrown itself. And sometimes the entrepreneur loses interest or no longer sees the value. Any co-creation, once it goes on a deviant intention, might even self-destruct."

The source of that deviation in co-created value could come from the consumer, competitive market pressures or investors in the case of many start-ups. 

"As the product grows, it has its own brain, its own life."

"There's no silver bullet to any of this because how customers perceive value changes every other week, for example. As a retailer matching value metrics for what you want to produce to your customers is important. 

“And I think product makers and service providers need to know where to pitch. Is it blue ocean or red ocean? If you're going blue ocean, you need to know the different set of values you're producing apart from the red ocean existing market."

Beyond our control

Very few people start out wanting to make a terrible product. But by ensuring you and your organisation have factored in heuristics and cognitive biases during your product development pathway and engaged productively with your target users, you can go some way to controlling some factors that could derail you. 

The road to product excellence and consumer satisfaction is littered with the wreckage of good intentions and unintended consequences. Unfortunately, sometimes that's beyond the control of even the best-resourced and most fastidious organisations.

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