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Evaluative and generative product development

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When planning a product, a common statement (normally from someone in a sales capacity) is “I haven’t talked to any customers that ask about X.” That may be true, but what about the potential customers that you aren’t talking to?

In the field of user experience there’s a concept of Evaluative vs Generative research. Evaluative is “which of these ideas that we already have are the best options?” Generative is “what are the ideas we have not thought of?”

The two approaches provide different outcomes. Neither outcome is better than the other, and both are usually needed to create a quality experience.

The needs of your customers and the overall market for your product can be thought of the same way. Entirely determining the product from evaluative customer feedback yields one sort of product. "Of the customers that are already finding us, what are their market needs?"

Think about when you go looking for a product to solve a problem for you. You do a sorting exercise and put products into "might do what I need" and "doesn’t fit my needs at all" as a first pass.

Customers never even talk to the companies that don’t fit their needs at all. If the only product ideas you’re considering are those that meet the needs of your current customers, then you’re only going to find new customers that look exactly like your current customers. You’ll completely miss out on adjacent customers.

To expand your market beyond your existing customer profile, you need generative product development. You need to explore product ideas outside of what you’re currently thinking of. Outside of what your existing customers are asking for.

A generative approach asks “what needs could we meet that would help new customers find us?”

Entirely using generative product creation isn’t a great idea unless you don’t have any existing customers. Your existing customers have needs and ideas and can be telling you which of the ideas you have now are most valuable.

Different stages of a product need different balances between generative and evaluative product creation. Mature products in a large market where sales are mostly driven by outbound sales and marketing will need a very different approach than a well-funded startup product that is still learning what their market is and can burn cash to learn. A company optimizing for short-term revenue will lean toward an evaluative approach, and one investing in future revenues will lean toward a generative approach.

But regardless of the way you’re leaning, you need to balance evaluative customer feedback with some generative product growth.

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