Product Intelligence & Development (Part 1) | Straighttalk

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Smart products are beginning to design themselves.

By Straight Talk Editors

When it comes to product development, Babolat has always played the long game. The 140-year-old company had been selling its tennis strings—popular among top players—for more than a century before introducing its first racket to the market, in 1994. “We’ve been working on improving our products forever,” says Jean-Marc Zimmermann, CIO of the Lyon, France–based company.

Twelve years ago, Babolat’s research and development group began experimenting with incorporating sensors into their rackets to capture how the products were performing and how customers were using them. The first prototypes were unusable for tennis play. The sensor technology had not advanced enough. But over the years—as the technology grew smaller, more affordable, and increasingly energy efficient—the idea of a smart tennis racket became a reality.

Babolat started selling its smart racket, accompanied by an app, in December 2013. The Babolat Play Pure Drive racket looks like a regular racket, but sensors integrated into the handle track a number of data points, including power, impact location, and type and number of strokes—information that can help players improve their game. It took more than a decade to figure out how to integrate the sensors without affecting playability or feel. But now that the smart racket is on the market, the intelligence it generates is changing the game not just for players but also for Babolat.

“When you develop a sensor-free product, the story ends when you release it to the market,” says Zimmerman, who’s taken on the role of project director for the Connected Players Xperience. “With this range of products the story starts when customers are using them. The main change in both product development and marketing is that we have to be prepared to get that instant feedback and work to keep evolving [our apps and our products] over time.”

A New Product Category

Thanks to increasingly advanced embedded sensor applications and robust, real-time analytics to make sense of the tremendous amount of data that’s generated, manufacturers are producing an array of smart, connected products, from toasters and TVs to elevators and jet engines. “It’s a whole new product category,” says Tim Ensor, associate director and head of connected devices at product development and engineering consultancy Cambridge Consultants.

“Benefit number one [of intelligent products] is survival. As people find smart, connected products more convenient, any vendor that doesn’t offer them will go out of business,” says Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Visiting Lecturer of Engineering Systems at MIT. “The second benefit is that they deliver a lot of data about how the product is used. In principle, companies can use that data to have closer relationships with their customers.”

Indeed, product intelligence has the potential to transform a number of business functions both internal and customer-facing, from product management to predictive maintenance to customer experience and support to marketing and sales. But at the most fundamental level, these smart products have the power to revolutionize product development and enhancement.

Intelligent products are in their infancy, and companies must work through several issues to take full advantage of the information these products generate—from figuring out what data really has value, establishing a faster and more flexible software development culture, and rethinking their product development approach. But forward-looking CTOs and product development leaders see a clear upside to overcoming those challenges.

“It’s not a problem, but a growth opportunity,” says Lavanya Rammohan, senior analyst with business strategy consultancy Compass Intelligence. “Companies are trying to figure out how to create a platform to develop the new, innovative products of the future.”

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Whose Data Is It Anyway?

It’s one thing to collect data about how customers use your product through a survey or phone call. Customers either choose to share or not. The lines get more blurry with intelligent products that collect that data automatically.

“The interesting thing about big data is that nobody really knows what it will be when it grows up,” says Will McLeod, cofounder and chief product officer of Keen Home. “I think the biggest problems come when people don’t expect [that you’re collecting the data]. That’s why we’re very up front with an opt-in rather than an opt-out policy.”

At GE Lighting, customers’ comfort level with data collection and analysis is varied. The cities who buy the company’s smart LightGrid system tend to be very open, because they’re already creating policies to share that data with their citizens. “And if we’re already hosting some of that data for them, we already have a trusted relationship with them,” says Rick Freeman, CEO of GE’s Intelligent Cities. “We find that in the market the customer wants to own the data, but they’re willing to license it back to us as long as it brings value to them in the long term.” Utilities, however, consider data their crown jewels. They may not want the company to store certain data for long.

Tennis racket maker Babolat has found its customers to be very open to sharing their usage data. “But they’re less comfortable sharing it with other players,” says Babolat CIO Jean-Marc Zimmermann. “That could be very valuable information for one of their opponents.” So the company gives users the option to make their app profile private but still feed the data back to the company for future product development.

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[Read Part 2 and Part 3]

Originally published in CTO Straight Talk, No. 2