Know Your Customer

Excerpt from Delivering the Goods: The Art of Managing Your Supply Chain (Wiley, 2002)

David Kelley, the famed founder of IDEO,America’s largest design and development firm, also heads the product design program at Stanford University. With a reputation as one of the most innovative designers and creative thinkers around today, Kelley seeks to nurture in his students the importance of knowing the customer.

Each year, on the first day of his most popular class, Human Values in Design, Kelley strides into the room carrying two bulging suitcases. For two hours, like a mad door-to-door salesman, he then proceeds to pull out one apparently handy gadget or contraption after another.

The only problem is, as Kelley effectively demonstrates to his laughing students, that none of these products really are actually handy. In fact, most of them don’t even work. A few—like a sexy, straight-from-the-factory can opener that, he shows, is guaranteed to slice your thumb off—are downright dangerous. It doesn’t take long to get Kelley’s point—that in their arrogance or stupidity, the designer and manufacturers of these absurd and even dangerous products have brought them to the market without properly testing them for either their safety or their desirability.

Thus, Kelley effectively demonstrates that if the age-old truth about necessity being the mother of invention—particularly worthwhile and profitable inventions—is still ever true, so is its obverse: that the absence of necessity, or customer need, can lead to some real lemons. Kelley’s corollary, you might call it.

Recently the efficacy of Kelley’s corollary was dramatically driven home in the larger, real world just beyond Stanford’s walls, amidst the hi-tech hills and dales of nearby Silicon Valley, when dozens of Internet start-up companies, including numerous once highly touted ones, went belly up. Why? Because, in the vast majority of cases, these misguided companies had plunged into designing, building, and implementing their sexy, cool, computer-based services while presuming that Joe Q. Public was interested in these services in the first place—or even, in some particularly obtuse cases, without even seeing whether the technology for delivering them to Joe and his family actually worked.

A recent and quite spectacular proof of Kelley’s rule—you could call it the look-before-you-leap-into-the-market rule—was provided by the catastrophic burnout of, the much-ballyhooed, London-based Net shopping service that reportedly went through more than $120 million before flaming out. When they started out in 1998, the young Swedish founders of, Kajsa Leander and Ernst Malmsten, had ambitions of being the upscale, readymade cyber-clothier to the world. Flush with start-up capital and cocksure of themselves, the two high-flying founders speedily hired a worldwide staff of about three hundred and established satellite offices around the United States and Europe. Photos of the ultraglamorous cyber-entrepreneurs appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world.

Alas, both Leander and Malmsten were so certain of themselves that they had not bothered to ascertain whether the average high-street shopper really wanted to buy his or her clothing off the Net—some did, most didn’t—or even whether’s much-vaunted, multifaceted, but, ultimately, hopelessly clumsy cyber-rack even worked.

It did not, and neither did In May, 2000, less than two years after its bubbly take off, and its high living founders returned to Planet Earth—with a devastating thud, as the entire staff was fired en masse and the founders beat a hasty retreat.

Why? In Kelley-esque terms, Leander and Malmsten had, for all practical purposes devised a big can opener that didn’t work.

Common sense? Perhaps. But many—far too many—supposedly cutting-edge manufacturing and services companies lack fundamental common sense in the way they design, plan, market, and manufacture things. And, far too many overlook perhaps the most important aspect of their product or service: ensuring that it can be delivered accurately, on-time, and in the right quantity.

Perhaps Leander and Malmsten should have taken a class with David Kelley. If so, they would have learned that to be a designer—a successful designer—it is imperative to think and act like a person, a real person. They might have paid more attention to the unglamorous but very real need and desire on the part of their potential customers for their product to be delivered accurately, on time, and in the right quantity, something that they obviously ignored, as did many other of their fellow failed dot-commers. The lesson that Kelley inculcates in his students is that no matter how brilliant you think your product or design is, it’s best to consider it from every possible human perspective—including the delivery perspective—before going public with it.