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Tell me what to do - German doctors, BlackBerries, and Insulin

Sitting on the patient chair, I watched the images of the MRI of my knee. The doctor, a German guy that looked experienced, scrolled without a sound, maybe in the expectation that I would know what I was looking at. Besides that it was my knee, with a patella, a femur and the two bones from the lower leg whose names I keep forgetting, I was clueless. And then, the magic words: “ So, what should we do? “

That was it. No further information. I asked what was the options… How could I know?? I did not study medicine!!!


Unfortunately, several products today are still created following this “tell me what to do” fallacy. Product managers and developers expect customers to come up with the answers - to detail not only their needs but also prescribe the solution. And when the customer delivers the list of features they want, they go and deliver, no questions asked. Some customers may end up being right and satisfied, yes. But they probably, as I, did not study medicine.

In the mid-2000s, BlackBerry was the trademark of businesspeople. The company had established a solid foothold and continued to provide customers with desired features such as a physical keyboard and secure email access. However, unlike BlackBerry, Apple did not rely on customer feedback to figure out their needs - they understood them (and technology) on a deeper level. Apple recognized that customers wanted more than just email - they wanted a sleek design, improved experience, and access to apps. Unfortunately, BlackBerry failed to innovate before Apple and, more importantly, failed to understand their customers. By relying solely on sales and market presence numbers (which only dropped enough too late), BlackBerry failed to deliver what the customer wanted. Today, it is just a memory.

Many diabetic patients require insulin injections, which can be an unpleasant experience, particularly for those with a fear of needles. In search of a more convenient solution, companies like Pfizer (2007, Exubera) and Sanofi (2016, Afrezza) invested heavily in inhaled insulin to meet customer requests. The idea was simple: no needles required. However, Pfizer took a $2.8 billion hit, and Sanofi withdrew from a $295 million contract for Afrezza. Why did these seemingly perfect solutions fail? While the inhaled insulin products did not require needles, they had significant drawbacks. In other words, they did not meet basic requirements. They decreased lung function in patients, were difficult to use (patients needed to take 5 to 10 times more insulin), and had inconsistent efficacy. Additionally, the high development costs were transferred to customers, who had to pay 3 to 4 times more than for the injected solution. Ultimately, customers chose the more reliable option, still preferring the painful experience.

Both stories demonstrate that understanding customers goes beyond simply asking them questions and listening to their answers. Often, people do not fully understand the capabilities of technology (nor should they need to) or what they truly want or value until they are exposed to different options. To truly understand customers, product managers need to have a deep understanding of their thought processes. This involves not only listening to what customers say, but also asking questions with a curious and inquisitive mindset. Why is the person saying this? What are they really trying to solve? Is there a better option? Why are these challenges present today? - are all questions that should be asked by product managers.

a horse with a phoneWe are solution designers, and designers start by questioning the world, by researching, by using empathy to listen and understand people. We must know the customer - that is the process. Otherwise, we will only deliver on requests, and will be forever stuck in a world of faster horses.


Catarina Pinto @catarinappinto