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“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” ~Ursula K. LeGuin

A common challenge when creating a new product configurator is to decide the right set of user questions. Configurators are designed to support the users driving the sales process, but the knowledge of the product comes from the product owners and engineers who are more technically oriented. Therefore, the configurator needs to represent this technical knowledge in a way that a sales oriented person can understand and correctly provide to an end customer.

For example, a client was constructing a new pump configurator. This particular pump included an optional electrical starter. Since the pump is sold in many countries, there were dozens of different starters available, each with very technical descriptions of their differences. Users unfamiliar with or unsure of the electrical requirements would have little hope of choosing the correct starter for their pump. Even armed with such knowledge, the volume of choices available still made it difficult to ensure correct choices.

This is a classic example of asking a user to provide the information that is required to build a product. While it may seem like the correct question to ask, it does not draw on knowledge that the user is likely to have. Rather, the configurator should ask the user about relevant information that they know, and use the answers to those questions to derive the technical information required to build a valid and correct product.

Returning to our example, a user may not know the electrical requirements for a starter, but they probably know the country that their pump is going to be used in. They should also know the planned usage of the pump – how often it will be started and how long it will run. The answers to these questions, combined with information about the pump itself, will allow the configurator to derive the correct starter, should the user opt to add one.

So, then, building a sales oriented configurator becomes an exercise in determining the correct questions to ask the user. This process should start with the technical information required to build a valid product. What components go into the product, and how are they determined. Whenever a choice needs to be made between different options for a given component, a question should be asked to the user.

After the initial set of questions has been determined, they need to be reviewed with respect to what knowledge is required to answer the question. How does a user know what the correct answer is? If the user knows the answer to the question implicitly, it is likely a good question. However, if the answer requires technical knowledge or is dependent on additional information which the user may not have, then the question should be reviewed. Is there a way the question can be asked which requires less knowledge? Are there other, easier questions which can be asked that determine the correct answer to this question?

Once the questions have been reviewed, we are now asking the right questions. The user should be able to easily complete the configurator without the need for additional knowledge. The next steps are to determine how to translate the user’s answers into the correct technical information required to build the chosen product. This process can be simplified through the use of characteristic based knowledge, a topic which will be covered in a future blog.


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