So many companies live by the adage: “We sell what the customer wants.” No you don’t. You’re not even close. Want to know how to do it? Take an alpha geek out to lunch.
Millions of products today have embedded computers and code in them, and thousands of service businesses use the Web to interface with customers. The real benefit from all this is not lower costs-if you think it is, you’re toast-it’s adaptability. When you ship a product, it should be the starting point of what it can do, not the end. It sounds blasphemous, but management needs to be open to their customers hacking their stuff.
There is a new breed of users out there, computer-literate consumers who don’t think twice about altering the look, feel and functionality of a product. Those billions of embedded computers have turned business on its head. The Henry Ford school of “one size fits all” or the Colgate school of 40 choices of toothpaste are now both obsolete. Give us one size that we can alter how we wish.
You see, the software in all those billions of little computers in our stereos and cars and cell phones and appliances are just itching to be updated. Not by companies, but by customers. That’s how they’ll get what they want. Mods, hacks, whatever you want to call them are the ultimate customization.
I recently attended an Emerging Technology conference in San Diego, put on by book publisher Tim O’Reilly. His hottest books have names like “Google Hacks” and “Wireless Hacks.” No, this isn’t the scary hacking companies fear, the kind that shuts down Web sites or threatens our national security. This is value-added hacking. Mr. O’Reilly defines hacks as “a clever solution to an interesting problem.”
Loads of money is wasted on market research to define products that large numbers of people want. But consumers are not monolithic clones. We all use things in very different ways. Companies need to think like hackers, even have a few on their staff, to rip apart every mass product or service and reduce it to that clichéd “market of one.” Many one’s actually. Companies should offer easy access to the code, inside their products or the workings of their Web site, and allow customers to hack away. The corporate types might learn a thing or two.
As an example, the first presentation at the conference was by Helen Greiner, an MIT grad who runs iRobot. You may have heard of their Roomba robotic vacuum-lots of sensors and processors and algorithms to clean your floor. The very next talk was some self-described alpha geek who showed how he took apart a Roomba, jammed a Web cam onto it and wrote code to check if the mail has arrived.
Hack-friendly products are already on the market. NTT DoCoMo, for example, makes a mint just downloading custom ring tones. My Nokia 3650 cell phone didn’t do what I wanted, so I went to a Web site called MobileWhack and found a dozen cool applications written for it. TivoHacks showed me how to set up my remote for skipping commercials. Tivo was afraid to annoy broadcasters, so left out this feature. I put it back in. The management of iRobot and Tivo and to some extent even Nokia actually encourage these hacks. It’s now part of their business model and culture.
Every business can and should hire a hack and set him loose on their stuff-they will learn more about their customers and how they use their products than any survey or field study would ever uncover. Some say this is all Microsoft ever does. The techies at Google hacked (with permission) the United Parcel Service so they can spit out package tracking information. Amazon has hooks galore in their system simplifying buying things through other Web sites, without going through their front door.
Back at the conference, I got into a conversation about how to hack cars, especially the adaptive cruise-control sensors and collision avoidance systems in high-end Mercedes, the one that keeps you a safe distance behind the car in front of you at 65 mph. These guys from L.A. were more interested in using the front and rear sensors to crawl along in 5 MPH bumper-to-bumper traffic while reading the paper. Want to bet that becomes a feature within five years?
You can probably hear the liability lawyers chomping at the bit. Who’s responsible if the hacked vacuum bites the mailman or your car goes over a cliff while you’re reading the Journal? A small number of Chuck Yeager like hackers will take things to the limit, and prod, poke and alter things anyway. The mass market can benefit from the best of those clever hacks being incorporated back into the real product as selectable features, and safety tested ones at that.
Mass customization is the next big thing. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it really isn’t. Just open up your wares and your customers will not just show you what they want, but do it for you, too.
Mr. Kessler is the author of “Wall Street Meat” (HarperCollins, 2004).