Customers Experience Product Reliability in Real Time
In a customer’s mind, the product works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work as expected it has failed. This may or may not be a reliability problem.
A customer or someone using your product brings a set of expectations to the experience. The range of expectations may range from very little to very high functioning, value production, and durability.
Failures are defined by customers.
In part, this is the functional capability, the operating within specifications, and the durability. The customer’s definition of reliability may or may not follow the design specifications.
It is the comparison of what should happen to what does happen.
Expectation and defined as failure
A basic expectation is the product should work as intended. If my phone doesn’t power on or charge, it has failed. I don’t know why, nor really care. My phone doesn’t work, it has failed.
On the other hand, I may be on a remote part of the country on a hike looking for a mountain waterfall. My phone powers on, yet is out of range of cell coverage. I may or may not consider that a failure.
Generally, understanding the cell system and coverage capabilities, I will not accuse the phone of failing unless it also doesn’t connect when back in town. I would have lost the function of making a phone call, which is technically a failure, yet it’s different than just not working at all.
A phone of any age that doesn’t power up is a failure to function. If a relatively new phone, as a customer, I may return the phone and complain about the failure. If a relatively old phone, I may simply dispose of the old one and purchase a replacement.
The definition of failure is relative. The gap between the expectations and observations define how customers define failure.
Anticipating customer expectations
Asking a customer about their reliability expectations doesn’t work in my experience.
“How long do you want your phone to work?” To which a customer may respond, “until I want to buy a new phone”, or “long enough”, or “it should never fail”.
When helping a potential customer purchase a printer, she asked if I could select one, at the store, that will not cause her any problems. This exception included:
- Ease of setup and connection to her computer
- Ease of use with her software
- Ease of replacing ink carriages
- Ease of adding paper to the printer
- And, that it would not fail
I asked her what she meant by ‘not fail’. Her response was as expected, ‘when I want to print, it prints and does so well.’
While not a formal definition of reliability, she basically just wanted the printer to work when she needed it to work, every time.
You and the design team need to explore how the product is likely to be used by customers.
Plus, explore how it may find application across a broad range of potential environments and use cases. Customers will not follow you target use cases unless they are clearly a representative of that group.
Customers will use your product according to their own needs and expectations.
Using surveys, observations, interviews, beta installations, and both common sense and creative exploration, may provide a view of your customer’s stated and unstated expectations.
Understanding the cost of failure to the customer may help you to understand their reliability expectations.
Exploring how and why a customer will use your product is a common practice, yet extend that to include what consequence occurs to the customer when a failure occurs.
Availability and reliability commingle within customer expectations
Office copiers have clear indications of paper jams along with step by step instruction to quickly clear the jam and resume copying.
They are addressing the availability by making repair time as short as possible. Which to a customer may result in claims the printer is ‘reliable’.
Customers experience product failure when they place a demand for performance on a product.
If the product is in the closet waiting to be plugged in, it may well have manifested a failure, yet it will not be noticed till someone needs the device’s capabilities.
Customers, even when they provide reliability specifications, are not good at anticipating how they will define failure in the future.
New technology that becomes available may change the frame of reference for expectations. It has nothing to do with your product, just their expectations.
Building a product that provides value with its functionality, that is also durable in the expected environments, is a start.
Keeping in mind that your customers may not have a defined nor fixed set of reliability expectations. Creating a product the just works is part engineering craft and marketing foresight.