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Three different approaches to product design and innovation.

Three different approaches to product design and innovation

We all own them – products that are so over-designed that we never quite master how to use them and only ever get to grips with a small proportion of their features.

The worst tend to be electrical and telecommunication products – from television sets that enable the viewer to ‘pause’ live TV to mobile phones that double as music players and cameras. Technologically brilliant? Certainly. But they can be so difficult to set up and operate that many consumers simply settle for watching terrestrial television and making and receiving the occasional telephone call.

Over-designed products are most likely to be produced by companies that are more focused on the product than on the market. Moll et al. (Journal of Marketing Management, Vol 23 No 9-10 2007), who compared 28 firms in the electronics, furniture and restaurant sectors, concluded that while the furniture industry stresses the importance of market vision, the electronics industry tends to pay more attention to the product itself. The authors present a model to help managers successfully to develop a market orientation.

Greene (Business Week; 5 Nov 2007) looks in more detail at the product-design process at a single electronics company – Bang & Olufsen. The author highlights the control that a group of designers has over the design of Bang & Olufsen’s electronic products and examines whether the company’s way of doing things – a throwback to earlier times – can survive in the digital era. The article quotes chief executive Torben Ballegaard Sorensen on how he believes that customers ‘don’t know what they want’ and how designs should be based on ‘a deep understanding of how customers live’.

Sorensen is right, of course – up to a point. The first Sony Walkmans, internet-ready PCs or digital cameras owed much more to ‘a deep understanding of how customers live’ than to potential customers ‘knowing what they want’. But left entirely to their own devices, there is a risk that designers begin to include product features ‘because they can’ rather than because customers really need, or even want, them.

Jana (Business Week; 26 Nov 2007) describes how Hewlett-Packard – a firm known for its focus on creating ‘cool’, high-margin products that target new customer groups – is solving this dilemma. Hewlett-Packard has coupled its traditional emphasis on engineering with a strong customer orientation. First, the firm uses social media to conduct web-based consumer research. Secondly, it encourages its engineers quickly to turn concepts into products. This process is given impetus through Hewlett-Packard’s strategy of absorbing or linking up with innovative start-ups. The founder of one of these, for example, created the Voodoo PC gaming room, focused on providing gamer-led innovation to Hewlett-Packard’s engineering laboratories.

Finally, Kirkland (Fortune; 12 Nov 2007) tells how chief executive John Chamber is developing a culture of innovation at Cisco, which went into decline at the turn of the century after achieving spectacular growth. By encouraging teamwork and innovation and using social networking to improve internal communications, Chamber is helping the company to lead a new generation of collaborative technologies such as telepresence, a high-definition, life-size, internet-based communication system.

Bang & Olufsen, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco present three essentially different approaches to innovation, product design and customer satisfaction but it remains to be seen whether any of them will win through with the next big ‘wow’ product.