Do People Really Want Smarter Toothbrushes?

Recently, Procter & Gamble’s Oral-B announced the release of its first ever web-enabled toothbrush. Setting a new standard for dental hygiene, the next SmartSeries toothbrush will include a smartphone app, helping users to know if they are brushing too hard or if it’s time to brush another area of their mouth. If that’s not enough, the new Oral-B connected toothbrush experience also suggests nearby dentists for you, gamifies teeth cleaning, and even provides weather updates. Sounds exciting, but does it make sense for the customer?

Call them user needs, customer requirements, or jobs-to-be-done, understanding what a customer wants and is willing to pay for is more important that ever now that the Internet of Things is upon us. Decades ago, Harvard professor Theodore Levitt popularized the rationale behind why people buy quarter-inch drill bits: “People don’t want quarter-inch bits. They want quarter-inch holes.” And the challenge now is that the actual drill might connect to the cloud, collect information about your drill usage, and tell your friends on Twitter that you just used your drill, too. Technology advancements are quickly outpacing traditional use cases, making the design and development of meaningful products harder than ever.

To create truly meaningful IoT-based products and experiences for customers, companies must understand their needs, which starts with three important questions.

Who is my growth customer?

As basic as it sounds, the first step in understanding customer needs is identifying your real customer. Although attracting early adopters is essential for early success and encouraging virality, growth customers—the people who are likely to buy the next generation of products—are crucial for building a sustainable business. Said differently: it’s easy to find a few hundred customers who will buy a new connected product; it’s much harder to find a few hundred thousand customers who will buy future iterations of said product. For some product categories like lighting and heating, evolving to a connected experience is a natural transition, and current customers will be the growth customers. But for other types of products, the growth customer for a connected experience is less clear.

Several years ago, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a famous post about the importance of product-market fit. Worth noting, he emphasizes, “In a great market—a market with lots of real potential customers—the market pulls product out of the startup.” Ultimately, knowing who the customer will be over time allows a company to build a truly differentiated product. And as the number of products and new market entrants rapidly increase in the IoT space, differentiation will be crucial for all parties involved.

What problem am I actually solving?

With the growth customer identified, the next step is to develop a strong understanding of the problem to solve, especially through exploratory research with potential users. Traditionally, designers have promoted ethnographic approaches with extreme users, while Lean Startup practitioners advocate for just “getting out of the building.” In either case, the general logic is the same: go talk to some real people. Understanding which problem is especially important in IoT: as advances are made in computing power, battery life, and network infrastructure over time, the problem a company is focused on solving provides a North Star for evolving the product roadmap and the overarching business, too.

As Thor Ernstsson, founder of Casual Corp and veteran of various healthcare and gaming startups, points out, “In the earliest days, customers buy into the aspirational vision of a company, even more so than its current products.” And as the customer base grows, a clear aspirational vision and direct customer feedback about problems help more established companies—including those in the connected space—“mediate the inherent tension between a focused value proposition and expanding feature lists.”

How is this better than analog?

Through sensors and the cloud, connected devices allow companies to build experiences that have a richer interaction and more meaningful connection with the customer, his or her devices, and the environment around them. But that direct relationship requires the voluntary exchange of personal data and some loss of anonymity – and the benefit of that exchange in value must be clear to users.

For example, Disney’s MyMagic+ allows Disney vacationers to use RFID-based MagicBands to enter parks without paper tickets, open hotel rooms without keys, and purchase souvenirs without taking out a credit card. And despite all of the amazing benefits, a large number of Disney visitors have expressed strong resistance to being tracked. Carla Diana, an IoT luminary and author of Leo the Maker Prince, has said, “For any connected experience, you have to answer the question, ‘Why is this better than analog for the customer?’ If you can’t answer that question, your desired customers won’t be able to either.”

Going back to Oral B, is the company being mindful of customer needs in introducing a smartphone-connected toothbrush? Maybe. In evolving its products, P&G should keep in mind the writings of Dieter Rams, the legendary designer who worked for Braun (which until recently was P&G’s brand for electric toothbrushes before Oral B). Among his 10 Principles of Good Design, Rams stated that, “Good design is as little design as possible” because it concentrates on the essential aspects and prevents products from being burdened with non-essentials. For P&G and other companies entering the connected space, balancing great technological features and “as little as possible” will be a major opportunity to shine and differentiate moving forward.

This entry was posted in Leadership and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.