If you are older than about 30 years old, you will probably remember the VCR—or video cassette recorder. When they first came out these devices were big, bulky and difficult to use. In order to program your VCR you had to consult the manual (400 pages long and written in poor English), press a multitude of buttons in the correct sequence, and hope for the best. Often, you would return home to find that your unmissable TV show or sports match had failed to record.

In those days, you might have taken this as your own technical inadequacy and blamed yourself. Today, we would blame the brand.

Expectations have changed so much in consumer technology that companies now know that their products must be simple, straightforward and even fun to use.

The same shift has happened in business technology. Years ago, in the early days of multiprotocol networking, Cisco equipment was notoriously hard to use. Engineers built it for engineers, with a lot of technical bells and whistles, but not a lot of user friendliness. Today, it’s a different story. You can pretty much take a Cisco Telepresence unit out of the box, plug it in and use it. Our “Network Intuitive” largely configures itself based on how you intend to use it. And connecting to a new wireless network is virtually automatic.

Technology vendors have made huge investments in usability because, as in consumer products, when something doesn’t work right, customers no longer blame themselves, they blame the brand.

That is why “customer obsession” has become such an industry buzzword.

But in order to meet a customer’s needs we first have to have a more nuanced and granular understanding of who the customer is.

In most enterprises, the decision maker for big technology purchases is the CIO or CTO. But is that the “customer”? What’s important to the CIO might be completely different from what’s important to the system engineer who has to pull the equipment out of the box and install it, or the person who uses it. Today, the customer is not just the buyer, and not just the installer, but all the different people who touch the product—the people who benefit from using it, the people who administer and support it, the people who secure it. If our “customer obsession” doesn’t extend past the person who signs the check, we miss opportunities to delight our customers—the full range of them!

Taking a much broader view of who the “customer” is and how they might interact with our products must be a guiding principle of innovation. For the past three years, I’ve led an innovation team at Cisco that develops technologies and business ideas in partnership with some of our largest customers—a process we call CHILL (Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs). When creating a new innovation, we always bring together everyone who might touch or interact with the product—from the CEO to the warehouse worker—and include them in the process.

For example, a CHILL lab focused on healthcare included industry leaders and corporate executives from major healthcare companies and corporate benefits providers. But it also included cancer patients and their immediate caregivers—because the solutions we developed had to work for both provider and recipient.

During this process, patients themselves gave us some invaluable feedback. They told us that, wherever possible, they would prefer to find ways of managing their own care and utilizing the support of their extended network of friends, family, and caregivers rather than relying solely on more frequent hospital visits and medical intervention. This insight caused us to dramatically change direction, and we created CircleOf, a startup that provides an integrated solution for enterprises, benefits providers, patients, and their caregivers.

These kinds of direct conversations with customers often yield insights that are surprising and counter-intuitive. And it is these insights that have the potential to bring the most value for Cisco and the most success for its customers.


Kate O'Keeffe

Senior Director

Customer and Partner Innovation