What is "WOW"? -- Part 1

It's happened again.  An executive has brought up that elusive word - "Wow". "I want a product that really wow's our customers" they say. I tend to get my back up when I hear it, because of how much it irks me. "Do you even know what you are talking about" I want to ask.  But I am too polite for that. 

Now that I have your attention - what is Wow? What do people mean when they say they want a product that "wows" their customers? You might have heard other phrases instead of wow that could be substituted:

  • "Customers should be queuing up to buy this product."
  • "I want a product that really pops."
  • "The product needs to be bold."

Executives are not ill meaning when they ask for "Wow!" products, they are often ill informed about what makes a product "Wow!".

What the heck makes a wow product?

Have you ever picked up a new product and said those very words "Wow!"?  What made you say it?  Was it a feature? Was it the price? Was it the quality? Was it the product's appearance or finish? Did you say "Wow!" immediately or only after you had been using the product for a while?  Was it the discovery of some feature or just an expression of overall delight? 

Consumers consciously or unconsciously evaluate products across 5 factors:

  • Aesthetics
  • Craftsmanship
  • Quality
  • Features
  • Value

It is not that we are creating a checklist with these factors when buying or using products (although some of us nerdy types do). As consumers we have an unconscious idea of what we expect the experience will be like. Our expectation and how a product lives up or does not live up drives our opinion of a product.  From buying to using products, whether personally or for our employer, each experience crafts a model of expectation. It is not a conscious or intentional behaviour; it is something we humans do naturally. Inherently we all build models in our heads of how we think the world works (in the craft of experience design we call this a mental model). When we are confronted by a new situation we draw upon our bank of expectations to predict an expected outcome.

Where do our expectations come from? Primarily they are built on our previous experiences. We do this for all types of action from purchasing, setting up, using, and upgrading a product.  Expectations are an automatic response we use to respond to situations.  The relevance of the situation dictates whether the experience is used for crafting an expectation.

There are two facets to expectations and they are constantly in flux.  The first facet is the 'context of use'; which means the environment and situation in which we use a product. We create different expectations for a product depending on the context we use it in. For example if you are camping, a tiny little hammer for tapping in tent pegs and pulling them out again is a useful tool. It is much better than using a rock since you are less likely to smash your fingers with the hammer. To be a good hammer for camping it must be small and light, those are the attributes that are most meaningful when camping. When compared to a rock, a camping hammer may be a wow product. If you handed that same camping hammer to a carpenter and asked her to frame a house with it, I don't think you'd be popular.  An effective construction hammer is neither small nor light. The context of use has changed and the expectations about the product have changed to match.

The second facet is 'market maturity' which is a little more complicated to describe. A new market is where a product provides novel capabilities never experienced before.  A VCR when it first came to market was novel because it provided a capability never seen before; to record live television and play it back.  The raw capability of recording and playing back made early VCRs a wow product.  Early consumers were willing to tolerate the many drawbacks to earlier VCR's.

  • Weight - very heavy
  • Cost - very expensive
  • Size - very large
  • Quality - image quality was poor

As competition entered the market they addressed many of the drawbacks of the early products. The size, weight and cost were reduced steadily, and soon quality improved. As the market matured consumers expectations about the product changed.  They expected lighter, cheaper, smaller, better quality VCRs due to added competition. A maturing market transformed the consumer expectation about the product.  What initially was a wow product later would be considered poor. To create a wow product in a maturing market requires innovation and, in the words of Clayton Christensen, something disruptive.

So back to our well intentioned executive, what do you do when you are confronted with the spectre of 'wow'?  Let's tackle strategies for discussing 'wow' with your executive in Part 2...