Mary Sorber: Raw Pasta is Not Enough

It’s easy for the product team to to fixate on the core technology that enables a product and lose sight of what’s needed for the “whole product.” This article is the result of an ongoing collaboration with Mary Sorber that started with her metaphor that raw pasta is not enough to create a successful Italian restaurant.

Mary Sorber: Raw Pasta is Not Enough

This blog post was jointly authored with Mary Sorber and appeared first on the Practical Insights website as “Raw Pasta is Not Enough.” Mary is  consultant who applies qualitative research methods to help clients answer questions related to product strategy, product design, and user experience. I have collaborated with her on a number of projects over the last six years and recommend her highly.

A Tale of Two Restaurants

Raw Pasta Is Not EnoughA frustrated restaurateur was complaining to a friend over coffee. “I don’t understand it, we opened last month and we have fantastic pasta. A week later, another place opened up down the street, and I went one day for lunch and their pasta was OK but nowhere near as good as ours. But they were jammed, I had to wait 30 minutes for a table.  We are half full most days at best. I don’t understand why people are choosing their inferior pasta”

The friend said, “I am sorry that I have not been able to get to your new place yet, tell me more..”

The restaurateur continued, “We source direct from Italy, it’s shipped fresh every day, and it’s the best in town. But people come once but they don’t come back. We have a few regulars, some even bring their gourmet cheese and seasonings and really love it. But frankly, we are not close to breaking even and it’s driving me nuts. This is why I am checking out my competitors to see what they are doing.”

The friend said, “I tell you what, I will come by tomorrow for dinner. It’s long overdue, and I will see if I can spot anything that might help get you a few more regulars.”

The next night the friend stopped by and saw people at a few tables having pasta. He sat down and looked for a waiter to take his order. But the owner hurried over and said, “here you start in the kitchen and select the pasta you want and boil it the way you like it.  It’s all the pasta you can eat so you can make a few different dishes if you like. You can bring whatever ingredients to add.”

“You mean you just have the pasta and it’s up to me to complete the meal?”

“Yes, and it’s the best pasta in town!”

“Ah,” said the friend, “I think I have some ideas on why your restaurant is struggling.”

The Implications for Your Product

Obviously this is not a real story, exactly, but except for the industry and a few other changes it does represent a number of traps that we have seen technology product teams fall into over the years.

  1. Raw pasta, like raw technology, is really only appreciated by a small part of the market. This can fool a team in the early going because technology enthusiasts are delighted with the opportunity to get their hands on the core offering and remix and repurpose to their specific needs. But pragmatic and mainstream customers are rarely as excited to have to go into the kitchen to get meal: they could have stayed home and had that experience more cheaply and comfortably.
  2. “Some assembly required” is a product failure for a mainstream market — meaningful options and customizations (e.g. salt, pepper, cheese) allow for useful customization by the end user. But you can have too much of a good thing, or perhaps more accurately too little.  If you force the customer to do too much they won’t view you as making a complete offer or providing enough value.
  3. There’s a market for both components and whole products, but each has a different set of customers.  If raw pasta is your product, then you are not in the restaurant business but the restaurant supply business, or perhaps the grocery business.  Engineering teams who love LEGO and Tinkertoys can fall into this trap of trying to selling components to end customers when their actual customer may be system integrators.
  4. Solving the “hardest problem” may not represent what enough customers value.  Getting fresh pasta from Italy by air every day is a big logistical challenge. Solving that is complex and perhaps quite thrilling, but solving that problem alone doesn’t satisfy customers who are looking for a great dinner and who may value consistency, reasonable price, friendly service, or a unique dining atmosphere.
  5. There are some things that can only be tested by getting into the market, but a limited launch can balance learning against the cost.  More importantly, the longer you can maintain the perspective that your product concept is a bundle of hypotheses that need to be evaluated, the less likely you are to proceed confidently into a catastrophe.  Perhaps the restaurant owner in the story may have been better served by starting with a food truck or pop-up stand.
  6. Prior customer experience with your category of product establishes expectations and mental models.  If you call yourself a restaurant, people will assume and expect your offering is in line with every other restaurant they’ve visited.  They will expect to dine on a finished meal, not to rent fractional time in a professional kitchen to cook their own meals.
  7. You can be too close to the problem to see where you have gone wrong. Subjecting your product ideas and prototypes to “friendly fire” of various sorts can avoid a lot of problems that will otherwise occur at scale when the cost of failure is much higher.  Experienced product teams learn to solicit a wide range of feedback early and in a structured fashion. A sequence of prototypes with increasingly fidelity allow the team to learn quicker and at a lower cost than doing the “Big bang” launch based only on an internal working consensus.

Related Blog Posts

  • Q: Should I Be an Entrepreneur? My perspective on what it takes to be an entrepreneur, this post was the result of an interview by Mary Sorber.
  • Qualitative Research: Problem Exploration for Lean Startups Key points from Mary Sorber’s presentation on “Qualitative Research: Problem Exploration for Lean Startups” at the Lean Culture meetup
  • How To Scale Up Qualitative Research Efforts: Qualitative research that allows firms to understand unmet and emerging needs is now the bottleneck for the specification, development, and delivery of significant new products. This has fundamental implications for how product development, sales, and support operations need to be organized and to collaborate. This has fundamental implications for how product development, sales, and support operations need to be organized and to collaborate. This blog was the result of a three way collaboration with Jeff Allison, Mary Sorber, and myself.
  • Matching Polypharmacy Solutions to Personas by Mary Sorber, NightingaleRx notes from a talk Mary Sorber gave at IEEE-CNSV in 2013

Note: This blog most is jointly authored with Mary Sorber and originally appeared as “Raw Pasta is Not Enough” on the Practical Insights website.

Photo Credit: bowl of boiled spaghetti pasta by Magone licensed from 123RF (Image ID : 89634243)

A closing note from Mary

If you want to learn how to think like a researcher, Practical Insights can help.  At Practical Insights, we help product teams create and validate their value proposition.  We bring the outside perspective and strategic thinking to explicitly clarify what problems you’re solving and for whom.  As researchers we can help solicit a wide range of feedback in a structured fashion to shape and test your product through the development life-cycle.

If you see yourself in the technology version of the frustrated restaurateur, give us a call to discuss how partnering with us can help.

Mary Sorber, Practical Insights

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