Beware CES’s Gallery Of Flops: Some Lessons For Legal Tech

Photo courtesy of Prelaunch.

One of the things that happens when you get a media pass to the big consumer electronics trade show, CES, is that you start getting tons of emails from vendors. All hawking their wares and asking you to be sure to come by their booths.

I get so many that it’s hard to keep track. But one stood out: an invitation to the second annual “Gallery of Flops.” The email promised to feature some of the most embarrassing product failures over the years.

It turns out the Gallery was a cleverly conceived marketing effort by Prelaunch. Prelaunch offers consulting services to companies — big and small — on how to avoid costly product failures such as the ones in the Gallery. The Gallery itself was nicely done with the actual products displayed, along with a description of what happened with each one.

I ultimately visited with Prelaunch founder Narek Vardanyan at the Company booth where the flops are displayed. Vardanyan says the products failed because of insufficient testing of customer interest pre-launch. Or the product was showcased to people pre-launch who really didn’t want it. Or the pre-launch input was sought from prior customers of a company who were not necessarily the customers for the new one. Each flop was a lesson in market misalignment. As it turns out, Vardanyan has some interesting ideas on market research and how to prevent these kinds of flops from occurring.

But first, the flops. Here are some of the biggest ones in Prelaunch’s Gallery:

  • The Amazon Fire Phone-Amazon just assumed people would want the phone. They didn’t.
  • Microsoft Zune-Microsoft’s answer to the iPod. It was five years too late.
  • TwitterPeek-a cell phone that only did one thing: tweet. Want to make a call, use another cell phone.
  • Oakley Thump-bulky glasses with low quality headphones at a high price. 
  • Sony Google TV Remote-a remote that was hard to use, confusing and didn’t do what it was supposed to do. (Sounds like some legal tech products.)
  • Harley Davidson Cologne-cologne from a maker of motorcycles. I don’t need to say anything more.
  • Nike Magneto Glasses-glasses that athletes could magnetically clip to their temples. Right, just what Michael Jordan wanted.
  • Bic Perfume-was the ink maker talking to Harley Davidson when it came up with this idea?
  • Nike Fuel Band-a product a little before its time. It ran out of fuel pretty quick. Nike had problems with the software and didn’t get what people wanted it for.

There are several others in the Gallery. You can access the complete list at this link.

So, how would Prelaunch have prevented these flops? Vardanyan believes flops are caused by not knowing what customers want or need prelaunch. Or because the maker of the product or service really doesn’t understand the customer’s business. They don’t recognize who makes the real purchasing decisions. In short, not knowing your customer.

But Prelaunch’s solution to these problems is unique. Vardanyan says when you pay people to evaluate your product pre-launch, you get biased results. People who are paid tend to favor the product, even if subconsciously. The participants will consciously or subconsciously tell the product maker what they want to hear, says Vardanyan. This approach may also result in input from people who are not the customers who will buy the product. Their opinions really don’t matter very much.

Instead, Prelaunch, through study and research, determines who a customer for a particular product will be. It finds people who would be interested in buying the product being developed. It then asks those potential customers to participate in product evaluations and comment on what they want. Instead of paying for this input, Prelaunch asks the participants to pay Prelaunch a nominal amount. In return, they get a future discount on the product if it is ultimately launched. If it doesn’t, then the participants get their investment back.

Vardanyan believes this “skin in the game” results in genuine, unbiased feedback — feedback from people who are actual potential buyers, not passive survey participants. This methodology not only garners authentic insights but also fosters a sense of ownership and investment among the evaluators, aligning their interests with the success of the product.

Prelaunch also solicits comments and suggestions from the participants during product development. These comments enable the maker to make changes in product design based on real input from customers. Those participating are much more willing to give all sorts of feedback, says Vardanyan. This feedback can prevent an expensive flop down the road.

What Vardanyan says is plausible. We see problems similar to those he identifies in legal tech product development and marketing. Vendors who don’t understand law firm business models like the billable hour. They offer products that take too long to learn to use and wonder why lawyers who bill by the hour won’t take time to learn to use them (hint, that’s non-billable time). Or they offer products that do something but don’t solve any lawyer’s or legal professional’s pain point. They don’t understand the byzantine decision process of law firms, so they tailor their pitch to IT instead of the lawyers who make the final decision.

When they do pre-launch surveys, they often ask a group of legal professionals in their community for input. But these people are the ones with the time to do the surveys. But the real customers are those who don’t have time on their hands to do survey work. And as Vardanyan says, the input of those paid to do the surveys may be biased in any event.

Legal tech vendors would do well to listen to people like Vardanyan and be more thoughtful about product evaluations. No one wants to be in the Prelaunch Gallery.

Stephen Embry is a lawyer, speaker, blogger and writer. He publishes TechLaw Crossroads, a blog devoted to the examination of the tension between technology, the law, and the practice of law.

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