Remember the Future

Goal: Understand Your Customers’ Definition of Success

“What should our product do?” Ah, yes, the seemingly open-ended question that many times isn’t that open-ended at all. Most of the time, what your product should do is some reasonable extrapolation of what it has done in the past. Your cell phone should have better signal strength, longer batter life, and be lighter. So should your laptop. And your car should be safer, faster, more stylish, and get better gas mileage. The result is that the question is often trivially answered: Your product should be better. Which makes you wonder: Are you asking the right question?

The Game

Remember the FutureHand each of your customers a few pieces of paper. Ask them to imagine that it’s some time in the future and that they’ve been using your product almost continuously between now and that future date (it could be a week, or a month, or a quarter – pick a time frame that is appropriate for your product). Now, ask them to go even further – an extra day, or week, or month. Ask your customer to write down, in as much detail as possible, exactly what your product will have done to make them happy (or successful or rich or safe or secure or smart –choose the set of adjectives that work best for your product).

Note: The phrasing of the question is extremely important. You’ll get different results if you ask “What should the system do” instead of “What will the system have done”. (If you’re skeptical, just try it).

Why It Works

This game is based on numerous studies in cognitive psychology that have examined how we think about the future. When we ask the question “What should our product do?” we are not given a frame of reference for comparison. When we ask the question “What will our product have done?”, we generate more fanciful, richly detailed, sensible, and longer descriptions, because it is easier to understand and describe a future event from the past tense over a possible future event, even if neither has occurred.

This approach has other important benefits. By thinking of a future event as one that has already occurred, you can imagine at least one sequence of processes that can be taken to generate the event. If you ask “What should our product do?” you are left wondering about not only what the product will do, but how the product could possibly do it. If instead you ask: “What will our product have done” you not only have a more concrete idea of what the product did, you can begin to answer the question “How did the product do it?” Thinking of a future product as already completed enables us to make more effective decisions by reducing the total set of possible outcomes that must be considered before a suitable plan is selected.

Remember the Future in Action

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