Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Lessons learned from an iPad: Meeting customer needs

October 19, 2011
By Dick Morley

When we were designing the programmable controller, we did not want it to be a computer. We wanted it to be an appliance – like a microwave oven. We purposely erased white boards with the word “computer” on it. We had to do this because the engineers were designing what they liked, not what the industrial engineer needed.

My point in sharing this 40-year-old story with you is to prove that technical detail is not the only consideration when designing products. Other issues to be considered include social, legacy and unforeseen complications. But the bottom line is that you have to think about all of this and still meet the customer’s needs (not your own) – a challenge, indeed.

The world is not deterministic

What if financing for the system is withdrawn; your key technical and marketing people leave the company; or the new operating system is not compatible with your developed code? Anything can happen. And, while I have learned over the years that the world is not deterministic, we still have to be careful to consider all of the possibilities during the design phase to meet the customer’s needs.


The iPad is a great example of knowing your customer. Critics in 2010 suggested that sales could be as high as one million units per year. They also suggested that the technology was not good – no camera, no flash, no multitasking, low screen resolution and the high price. “It will never sell,” they said. Your intrepid columnist felt the same way.

So, why did I buy one? My bookkeeper came to me and asked, “Why don’t you have an iPad?” My response was that my left brain couldn’t find a use for it. She responded with, “All my bookkeeping clients use PCs, and they all own iPads. I don’t know why they have them, but they take them everywhere – home, travelling, in meetings and in the bathroom. It is an attachment like a wristwatch.” With trepidation, I spent my $700 and love the stupid thing; and I still don’t know why. Apparently, it matches the needs of my right brain.

Surely this proves that, even though it would be difficult to determine that even I would love the iPad, Apple really knew its customers – even reluctant ones.

Another iPad example: An engineering company I’m familiar with in the Midwest had a problem – it was being run by 25 software engineers, not by the marketing department or the president. These software engineers build what they like and not what the customer prefers to have. Discussions with the owner of the company suggested that the Macintosh interface would be useful in SCADA systems. But how do we get a gaggle of engineers to deal with real people trying to solve real problems? We decided to expose them to the iPad and we performed an experiment.

The president put an iPad in his shop. No instructions; he just put it on the lab table. You can hear the PC junkies: “What a bunch of junk; not an open system; another iCandy gadget.” The PC was the religion and nothing else was tolerated. Finally, one engineer picked it up and would not let the others touch it. The same engineer then ordered a Mac for his next computer. We used the wings of the butterfly to gain acceptance of new technology.

Because of the change in the consumer and the environment, sales of the iPad skyrocketed. Apple is now one of the highest valued companies in the United States, on par with the oil companies. This tsunami is similar to the computer and industrial revolutions. Who would have known? Apple knew, it seems.

Know your customer

Marketing is an equal partner with technology in any technical corporation. Marketing requires us to know purchasers. You cannot use the word “I” when discussing marketing needs.

To build good systems, we have to make sure that the customer’s needs are met. My favourite venture capital statement is, “We know the dog food is healthy and good, but will the dogs eat the dog food?”

Our friends in the accounting department know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. We, the people who build stuff, need patience and we need to do it right, independent of our own likes and dislikes.

A system should be designed with a top-down approach. Systems have to exist for a long time and be competitive, and not just for today. My advice: Go to the future and bring that future back to the present day. Don’t take the present day and try to drive it into the future.


This column originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.



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