Microsoft Bing – Learning’s on customer-driven innovation from a startup venture within Microsoft

Microsoft Bing has used market research to find an unmet customer need with respect to search: liberation from the list of blue links. Bing meets a top need among consumers: it helps them accomplish tasks faster, with more confidence.

With Bing, Microsoft made many surprising moves in search. Straying from the pack, it questioned assumptions about competing on the size of the index or the precision of results alone; it dove deeper to understand user intent. What is the intent of users when they type a key word or phrase in a search box? What are they trying to accomplish? What decisions do users want a search engine to help them make?

All search engines talk about using knowledge about user intent in order to serve search results. However, Microsoft has taken bold steps in this direction, by making changes to its user interface and launching new features to help users get more out of their searches, to help users make decisions.

In this two-part blog post, I will explore learning’s about customer-driven innovation at Bing leading to its new value proposition: that of being a decision engine.

For the past many years, the search industry focused on returning a list of links to users in response to their queries. This list of links placed a burden on users, forcing them to dig through the list and find the one’s that matched their intent. The Bing team knew they had to break through the current competitive search landscape. They knew they had to redefine the search category. But how could they do this? By focusing on a highly valued yet underserved consumer need: the need people have to make faster, more informed decisions. And not surprisingly, Bing's market share according to comScore has steadily risen to over 10%.

Stefan Weitz, Director, Bing Marketing, explains, “Customers number one request in search – ahead of anything else – is reducing the time-to-task completion.  We think we can better achieve this goal by focusing on what the user is trying to do and pivoting the user experience and the answers we present around that intent. Not all queries are the same, so why should all search results pages look about the same?”

Bing’s consumer research found that people make decisions of varying degrees of importance and complexity all the time. Some are quick “if/then” type decisions, while others are “best alternative” type decisions that generally take longer to complete. However, the Bing team did not stop there. They went further and analyzed the steps consumers take in making decisions. Bing’s research found six steps in decision-making: (1) framing the decision, (2) gathering information, (3) developing alternatives, (4) rating alternatives, (5) making the decision and (6) evaluating the decision.

For example a few features being developed by the Bing team attempt to go after the customer need of saving users time by minimizing unnecessary clicks and queries, and providing tools that can help users make decisions with more confidence. Through hover preview, instant answers, enhanced captions, travel and shopping tools, Twitter search and the new mapping (or “spatial search”) experience, Bing is re-defining search to serve as a decision engine for customers. Bing’s Senior Product Manager, Henry Hall explains, “We asked users a simple question, ‘what are you trying to accomplish with search?’ We found that in many instances, they were gathering bits and pieces of information from all over the Web to help them make some kind of decision.  But search engines weren’t doing a great job of anticipating that need. There was an opportunity for not just another search engine, but a Decision Engine.”

As a Decision Engine, Bing is focused on delivering great results, providing a richer and more organized user experience and helping users accomplish key tasks more easily.

The re-invention of Bing is a great example of the importance of customer-driven innovation. By putting new product or service ideas through the litmus test of whether they solve key customer problems, startups can increase their likelihood of success.

Will Google Users Switch to Bing? Watch what a few have to say.

In a couple of qualitative studies, Bing has found that once users are exposed to Bing for an extended period of time, they tend to  re-evaluate their idea of what a search engine could be. In this video, Microsoft captured the reactions of selected participants.

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