I recently read Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson (highly recommended, if long).
In an entirely unrelated incident, my washing machine broke down while I was in the middle of it, and I needed to buy a new one.
It made me wish Apple made washing machines.
Not for usability and design reasons, though that could be good too: they’d probably look like the above washing machine concept by Arman Emami for Bauknecht (not Apple), and would have just one button saying “wash”, rather than the confusing array of dials and buttons that adorn every model I’ve ever seen — and here in Luxembourg, all the labels are in either French or German, which is hard when all you know is restaurant French and how to order a bier, bratwurst and kartoffeln in German.
No, what I wanted Bosch to do was adopt a product grid like one that Steve Jobs introduced when he returned to Apple in 1997.
Steve Job’s Product Grid
This is a summary of Apple’s 1996 Macintosh product lineup before Jobs returned (note that each product had multiple variants with slightly different numbers and features):
Jobs was reviewing this lineup, and trying to simplify and focus on a narrower range of products.
After a few weeks, Jobs finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable”. Their job, he said was to make four great products, one for each quadrant… (Isaacson, ch. 25)
This is Apple’s 1999 product lineup, after Jobs’ review was complete:
Ever since then, Apple’s lineup, while it’s grown to cover more categories of product, with a few more variants than in 1999, has remained relatively simple compared to the competition, which makes selecting the right Apple product really easy once you’ve decided to buy an Apple.
What’s more, this product line simplicity that has enabled Apple to create one of the world’s most efficient supply chains, cutting inventory and increasing margins far ahead of any competitor.
Bosch’s Washing Machine Product Lineup
Look at Bosch’s washing machine lineup by comparison (other brands are pretty much the same):
As a Bosch customer, you have to become an expert in washing machines — something most of us think about as infrequently as possible — just to buy a product.
Customers should not need to trade off between different spin speeds and sound ratings, study different wash cycles, or weigh their typical laundry basket (How many kg of washing do you do each cycle ? Answers in the comments!), and then wonder if they should have bought WAU28TS1GB instead of WAU28T64GB because it has the new EcoSilence drive, which is better for washing your silk pajamas while the kids sleep.
It’s not just the manufacturer’s fault — retailers like the product complexity, because customers depend on the salespeople to help them choose. This gives them an opportunity to upsell, and means the shop can compete on how much their salespeople know about washing machines (because you wouldn’t want to buy a washing machine from someone who knows as little as you do).
I ended up buying a Bosch “Serie 6”, but I can’t tell you which model it was, or what features it has, because I don’t know. The product selection actually available for delivery at my local retailer in Luxembourg were different to the ones on the Bosch website, and it was all in French anyway. It washes my clothes, is big enough for my family, and seemed like a good price-quality trade-off.
What would Jobs do?
Never mind the premium price-tag and amazing design, let’s just apply the product grid and simplify the sales process using existing designs and make it simple for customers to select the right product.
It may be slightly more complex than Apple’s four-squared grid, but not much more:
- Top-loader, front-loader or washer-dryer
- Small, medium, or large
- Budget, mid-range or top-tier
Make each product great for its category, and reduce costs by having a simpler lineup. Sell it direct only, presenting the product clearly rather hidden in a sea of almost identical competitors, and cut out the middle man, using their margin for marketing and customer service.
A brand like this will stand out, just like Apple does in its markets against competition with needlessly complex product offerings.
The key decision becomes which brand do I buy — do choose a brand that might offer marginally better value for money if I do the work to select the right product for me while my washing sits unwashed, or do I choose the brand with a great reputation and one product that seems to suit my needs quite well?
But this isn’t about Washing Machines.
Look at the buying process for your product or service from the customer’s perspective.
What work do you, your channels, or your industry make your customers do?
How can you make the key decision about choosing your brand rather than navigating and comparing your product line and retail channels?
If you remove this complexity, can you invest the savings in improved service, product or operational efficiencies?
It worked for IBM
Shortly after reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, I read Lou Gerstner’s “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”, about IBMs turnaround starting from 1993.
I was struck at one of the key things Lou did at IBM was to simplify their offerings for customers. Not by making a simple matrix — Enterprise IT doesn’t work like that — but by creating a unified sales force that worked across product lines and geographies to make it easier for customers to buy from them.
The solution was different for IBM, but the thinking was the same.