Monday, April 4, 2016

From use-cases to users: Do B2C tech companies need a fundamental shift in consumer thinking?

A typical discussion on product enhancement with a founder or CEO of a B2C tech company begins with the ubiquitous question- “what’s the use case here?” Many product innovations, app features and improvements are designed after answering this question. Not just product but entire organization is focused on solving the “use-case”- afterall the focus on “use case” ensures that every new investment in product innovation or tech solves a legitimate consumer problem and delivers incremental business.

While this is a fair yardstick, there is a small problem with this approach- it doesn’t consider the user experience beyond product- tech is assumed to be an all-encompassing umbrella that would solve every problem of the intended target consumer or rather user to whom the use-case is supposed to deliver.

Some typical consumer manifestations of this thinking (and we all have experienced it sometime or the other) are- a shared cab service constantly taking new pickups and drops during journey even as the first passenger on board is still waiting for drop, an online travel agent suggesting 15 hour flights between Delhi and Lucknow, a home service provider sending a plumber who has little knowledge of plumbing, a food tech company delivering half-cooked cold food because it has to meet the 20 min deadline for “express service”, a Real Estate portal with lots of cool tools and data science but little listings, a room aggregator that has 20 options in 2 KM vicinity but each one is equally bad- in all these instances companies considered product use-case without paying any heed to “user”, they considered UX on app/site but didn’t pay attention to “User Experience” as a whole.

It’s a little disconcerting as it manifests classic product myopia- the jazz and novelty of tech is supposed to paper over “minor” blips in experience. However we forget that while tech and product have progressed by leaps and bounds, the consumer or the user- his fundamental believes, anxieties, motivations and behaviours haven’t progressed at same pace. That’s a process of evolution and takes generations to change (more on this another time). If at all, the “instant gratification” generation of today is more demanding, more impulsive and ready to throw a fit at multiple grievance platforms or worse, switch to another brand.

Consumers care little about a company solving problem of his urban commute with an app- they still want a clean cab with a decent driver, they don’t care about thousands of service agents available at doorstep- they are only concerned if the plumber who comes home is capable of solving their problem, they don’t bother about “drone view” & “locality rating” if they find only 5-6 listings in the area of their choice in a property portal. They also don’t care about funding, fancy investors or jazzy offices of the company. Yes it’s a harsh consumer world out there but then satisfying expectations of these consumers is what that’s going get any organization a sustainable business- one that doesn’t buy but build loyalty.

Building a sustainable B2C tech business entails acquiring consumers through merits of “overall product experience” rather than mere discount backed tech experience. And that’s unfortunately the hard part of the deal- it involves understanding drivers of trials, of repeats and of stickiness. In other words, it entails building an understanding of vital consumer led business drivers, the quintessential “moments of truth” that the service should deliver on. And this will help to control and shape organic recommendations- the most desirable and sustainable form of virality. Without having a hold on these, a lot of companies might build momentum that’s just propped up by discounts, curiosity or media money- and is therefore artificial or unsustainable.

Doing this involves a fundamental shift in thinking- of understanding consumers beyond “use-case”- considering them as flesh and blood entities with their own idiosyncrasies rather than bits of digital data that interact with product in a predictable way. Many tech firms that delegate this thinking to a “later date” discover that they are trapped in a vicious whirlpool of scaling-acquisition-resolution-scaling, in other words, the loop of feeding consumers in a leaky bucket that needs more and more repair (read funds) to sustain the growth.

Net, building a sustainable business in B2C tech isn’t just about heavy media blitz or catchy taglines. Rather it’s about building a solid product story rooted in a thorough understanding or at least appreciation of all moments of truth. Balancing unit level economics with consistent consumer acquisition is the essence of a true brand. Therefore tech based start-ups would do good to invest from their inception in brand “thinking”, if not brand “building”- more so in today’s chaotic environment when investors are getting choosy and picking businesses that show natural rather than artificial growth. And this definitely calls for a thinking that goes beyond “Use Cases”

*(A BusyBeeBrands Perspective)

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