How to Create Breakthrough Products

by Victor Cheng


When it comes to product development, one of the things I advise my clients to do is to solve an obvious customer problem. By obvious, I mean a problem the customer already knows she has and already finds annoying.  The operative word in that last sentence is the word “already.”

The alternative is to solve a problem that customer 1) doesn’t even realize she has (and nobody every pays money to solve a problem that aren’t aware of), or 2) a problem that on a scale of 1 to 10, is a level 2 (e.g., mild annoyance).

I’m often asked haven’t all the obvious problems that customers face already been solved by others? You might think so (and lets hope your competitors think this way), but the world is filled with problems looking for a solution.

I was in the grocery store the other night looking for an oven thermometer (long story: don’t ask) when I came across the following product on the display aisle.  It’s a pair of Onion Goggles.  I had to do a double take. What the heck are onion goggles?


Well you know how when you slice onions in the kitchen, the onion juices cause your eyes to tear and burn. Well anyone who has ever cooked with onions is aware of the problem. This problem has existed since 5000 BC – the date of the oldest onion “fossils” (or equivalent).

So we are talking about a 7,000 year old problem – men and women crying over onions for 7,000 years.

I thought the product was very clever. I certainly understood why the product would be useful and I suspect you do too.

Here’s one of the telltale signs that you’re solving an obvious problem for customers. When you show them the product or explain the concept, they instantly “get it”. In short, the product “resonates” with its intended customer.

Now I’m sort of a fanatic about this kind of stuff. I’m ALWAYS looking for business innovators. So here are a few more obvious problems (many that have existed for decades) that still persist to this day:

1) Why do doctor’s office always run so freakin late! The only time I’m ever late or have to reschedule a client call is when my 12.4 minute appointment (why they are so short is a rant for an entirely different day), takes nearly 3 hours door-to-door. What kind of clock do doctor offices run on anyways?  And why is it everyone I talk to has a similar story and totally understands what I’m saying…. that’s an obvious problem.

(I should say it’s an obvious problem to customers, but often not so obvious to the doctor/vendor/company).

By the way, this is often why I’m called in to help out companies looking to transition to a permanently faster rate of growth–sometimes it takes a pair of “fresh eyes” to see what’s obvious to your customers, but totally overlooked by industry veterans.

2) Contractor’s Butt – When plumbers and other members of the construction trade, bend over to work on something low to the ground… you know what happens. Those baggy jeans slip down, and things that weren’t meant to see the light of day (at least I don’t want them to see the light of day) end up visible to all. I mean seriously – it’s kind of gross.

Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you?

See obvious to you and me… yet the problem still continues.

If I were in the plumbing business, I’d find a way to get rid of that problem.  If I were in the uniform business, selling clothing to plumbing companies, I’d designed an extra long shirt that complete eliminates the contractor’s butt problem.

But wait, normal shirts are supposed to run only 6″ longer than the waistline.. but I’d design my shirts to be 18″. Why are all shirts designed that way? Is there some kind of law I don’t know about?

No, the real reason shirts are designed this way… habit.

3) The Repair Guy Will Arrive Between 7am and 7pm. Why can’t repair companies give me an exact time for an appointment and actually show up when they’re supposed to? When the tv, appliances, telephone line or any other such thing requires a repairman, why is it someone has to wait at home the whole stinkin day for them to show up?

4) How can you graduate high school without being taught anything about money? Why is it schools spend 12 years teaching all kinds of stuff (some useful, some I’ll argue not so useful) and yet teach nothing about money.

How does a credit card really work?  (Ahem… no, it is not “free” money).

I mean if a high school graduate can read, write, and do some math… but can’t manage his own money, can you really call that a successful graduate?

So why does what I consider to be an obvious problem persist… momentum, habit (and a variety of other politically charged hot button reasons).


My thought for the day

So here’s my challenge for you.

What does your industry do to irritate your customers so much and so often, that customers assume there’s no other way?

Figure out THAT problem… then figure out how to solve it, and you’ll have a winner on your hands.






{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

tomadams October 8, 2010 at 12:32 AM

Hey Victor

One of my favorite catalog companies, the Duluth Trading Company has come up with the solution to the plumber's butt problem.

It's called the “Longtail T.” In fact that's how they market it – to solve the age old problem. Three extra inches of fabric to prevent the notorious condition.

They also carry “Ballroom Jeans” to solve another of life's problems. I'll let you guess the big problem they are solving there.

I love the onion goggles.

Matthew Gillogly October 8, 2010 at 2:18 PM

Of course there is always the secondary use for the product that is created. The unintended market that develops. Case and point, the onion goggles are used to protect the eyes from Champagne during locker room celebrations when a team wins a division, a league or world series. Think about all the championship celebrations worldwide who use these goggles.

Tom October 8, 2010 at 2:31 PM

This is freakin' brilliant! I don't know why:
Gas lawnmowers throw stones
Nail polish remover has to stink so much
There is no quick way to remove the smell of cooking fish from a house
You can't sell self-improvement to people who obviously need it
Newspaper deliveries end up in the gutter or street so often
You can't get ANYONE in a business on the phone anymore
There is no way to shut up a loud cell phone talker with a bluetooth “earring” in a public place…
And that's just the things that occur to me before my morning coffee. I'm going to give this serious thought later.

Vesselin Kavalov October 21, 2010 at 10:41 PM

Once upon a time man used suspenders. In a normal up-right position a belt does pretty much the same thing. I don't think suspenders were invented for the normal up-right position though. Somehow they are considered ultimately “un-cool” ? I wouldn't ware them for a different reason – who in their right mind put the seem of the pants right in the middle -> to give you “wedgie” at the slightest opportunity. Loose the “wedgy” seem and some may use the suspenders for their intended purpose

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