by Ashley Collier Clark

Can you put a price on product user knowledge?  Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security and its contractors didn’t put a price on it when it began the SBI border control project.  However, after spending $1 billion dollars on a failed “beta” version of the “Virtual Fence” along the southern U.S. border, they are reconsidering its relevance.

As reported by the popular “60 Minutes,” the project began in 2006 and the contractor promised to deliver the Department of Homeland Security a surveillance system that would cover the whole 1,972 miles of the border within 3 years.  Four years later, the government has a failed prototype and only 28 miles that have been “wired” with the surveillance system.  What happened?  Besides over promising and under delivering, no one took environmental conditions or user needs into consideration when designing or implementing the system.  Problems were immediately noticed when the first 28 miles of towers were installed and the software was delivered to the agents.  First of all, the “off-the-shelf” cameras and radar that were used were very susceptible to rain, wind and heat.  Secondly, the plan was to connect the border control agents to the surveillance system through laptop computers that they would carry in their off-road vehicles.  The developers did not take into consideration the difficulty agents would have using a laptop computer in the harsh terrain of the southern border and didn’t account for the distance they would travel out of radar range over the vast reaches of the border.  So after a few months of use and 100’s of millions of dollars, the Department of Homeland Security announced in June of 2008 they would phase out this system, called it a prototype, and said that they would replace it with the new, improved version and re-cover the same 28 miles.

Knowledge about users, their needs and the usage environment helps companies in setting better business goals for their product in a more realistic manner.  The reality is that many companies, as in the case with the “Virtual Fence,” move forward into product production without taking actual product usage data into consideration.  There are many techniques that companies can employ to acquire such valuable information on how their products are used.   An industry term used for this type of data gathering is “Customer Usage Profiling.” These techniques range from the simplest to the most technical & complex of methods.

Customer usage profiles can be designed to actively gather information on how the customers are actually using a product. They can range from a simple questionnaire to sophisticated instrumentation within the product that feeds back detailed information about its operation. In the case of the “Virtual Fence”, a simple survey of the border agents could have uncovered the difficulties of using laptop computers in off-road vehicles.  Customer surveys are one of the most straightforward ways of collecting meaningful customer usage information, and can provide a wealth of information that can be of real use in dealing with engineering and test design problems.

Often, an organization may be interested in more information or types of data than can be supplied through the use of a questionnaire or survey. For these companies, a direct measurement program may be developed, utilizing equipment that can directly measure how a product is being used. While this is often much more expensive than a survey, it can provide detailed information and eliminate any of the potential interpretation errors inherent in a written survey.  This type of data gathering would be more practical for very technical, high performance products such as a vehicle or software program. Feeding this kind of data into a simulation program that predicts the effects of customer usage would be the ultimate in feedback.

Whether a company obtains their information from customer surveys, direct measurement programs or another method suitable to their product and customer base, the acquisition and analysis of realistic information about customer usage can significantly improve product design and post purchase activities. Perhaps, even saving a company from an embarrassing “redo” and public exposure on “60 Minutes” like the Department of Homeland Security.  Maybe you can’t put a price on product user knowledge.  However if you don’t consider it on the front end, most likely, someone else will determine that price for you, and that price could come in the form of a redesign or a recall.

–Ashley Collier Clark


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