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Mary Egan had a problem that was frustratingly easy to track.

Customers who signed up for the free trial of her website – GatheredTable.com, which produces interactive meal plans for families – weren’t converting to paying subscribers in large enough numbers.

So Egan did what she has always done when an issue arises during product development. Just like when she was back at Starbucks, where she was part of a team that oversaw the chain’s acquisition of new food brands, Egan encouraged her team to look “through the lens of the customer".

The art of making people want what you've created (Credit: Getty Images)

At GatheredTable.com, the company she founded in 2013, her team found that regular visitors of the site were most likely to sign up for a paid subscription when the free trial ended. The team deduced that in order to convert more free trials to subscriptions, the site had to be easier to use for new visitors. So they created clear how-to directions and a new instructional video.

“In true scientific method fashion, we tried things to see if they worked,” Egan said. The result? The number of people converting to the paid site has grown eight-fold. “Now I want to see it grow another eight times.”

Plans don't always go as expected.

Egan’s experience is one familiar to any manager who has overseen product development: plans don’t always go as expected when you’re trying to create something you hope everyone wants. Often, managers make it harder than it needs to be to correct course. But there are few simple steps any manager can take to master bringing a new product to market and increase the odds of success.

Small steps to the big results

Product development is not achieved through a long-term plan alone, said Kira Makagon, executive vice president of innovation at RingCentral, a California cloud communications company.

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“People tend to have these grandiose product plans that run into multiple years,” Makagon said. “You’ll get there, in two years, but only if you have incremental goals along the way.”

Right from the start, break the big project into manageable stages, Makagon said. Give your team a smaller goal that can be quickly attained at the outset. Use that first benchmark to help set the next one.

Once the goals are being met, it’s not always a sign of smooth sailing. Recognise the plan isn't set in stone and things may go wrong along the way. Maybe that open-source software program you chose to run the project just isn’t working, and now you’ll need to come up with the budget to replace it. Delays and changes are inevitable, but correcting an issue early and adjusting the plan accordingly is better than watching it all go bad at the end because of missteps you could have corrected earlier.

And that leads to Makagon’s third step toward product development: a quality assurance process that’s integrated from the start. Consider it the coveted role of devil’s advocate. Whatever the product, continually test it and create all kinds of scenarios that your customers may encounter. Ask what works and what doesn’t? Consider what you’d find annoying and a breeze. Remind yourself what problem this solves and ponder whether you’re creating any new ones with what you’ve developed.

And remember, you’re the boss for a reason. “There’s an element of intuition that good managers have,” Makagon said. “They can evaluate product development based on the feedback that’s coming in, beyond just data from technology.”

Quick response when things go sour

At Starbucks, Egan saw plenty of successes, and a few disappointments, as the coffee giant expanded its menu. The decision to adapt its food offerings in North American stores began when the company noticed a simple trend: many customers bought a beverage and then went elsewhere for a meal.

Starbucks customers would take their coffee and buy food elsewhere, so the chain upgraded its menu (Credit: Getty Images)

Starbucks tackled the problem by acquiring and then absorbing La Boulange to upgrade bakery products and Evolution Fresh to expand healthier food options.

What in your customer experience is driving them away?

“You have to start where you’re losing people in the funnel. What in your customer experience is driving them away?” Egan said. “Once you have your hypothesis of the root causes of the problem, translate your hypotheses into features.”

That’s often how it is in business, said Onesun Steve Yoo, assistant professor at the University College London School of Management. Nowadays, most companies need to have an agile product development model where things are rolled out more quickly and then adjusted based on early feedback.

It's about listening to your customers — a lot.

That can be tough for big companies worried about a hit to their reputation if a product isn’t received well – think of the criticism Apple received after the rollout of its maps app. It’s also tougher for manufacturing companies that have to make expensive changes to equipment. But for smaller companies, making adjustments based on customer reviews can mean a better product than one that’s been over-tested in the vacuum of a boardroom, Yoo said.

“It’s about listening to your customers — a lot,” Yoo said. “You have to change your product as you go, and you have to do it often.”

Admit all mistakes

Reacting to customer reviews is exactly what was needed when Tom Bingham worked for six years in the mid-1990s in product development for Echo, a Japanese company that manufactures landscaping equipment.

Echo had taken a suggestion from one of its largest customers to create a heavy-duty string trimmer. But the upgrades made the product too heavy for the landscape contractors who were carrying it all day.

Echo started losing market share to lighter competitors. So Bingham suggested a change to his bosses. That’s not easy to do in a Japanese company, where failures can sometimes bring shame on decision makers. Bingham’s team came up with a new option: they’d quickly roll out a lighter version. In the end the company captured more market share than it had previously, he said.

Now, Bingham is senior director of product engineering and marketing at Gold Eagle, a Chicago-based company that produces chemicals for cars. The long-ago problem at Echo helped him create a product development mantra: always be thinking about what the customer wants.

“There can be lots of opinions within these four walls,” Bingham said, “but we need to understand what the customer needs.”

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