Researching Products should be for Foresight not Hindsight

I was doing my usual weekly “talk back” engagement session by answering my reader’s comments and questions when I stumbled over this. One of Design Sojourn’s readers left a question in the “comments” section of my design article “25 Bad Habits of Industrial Designers“. The reader Rogue asks:

I was curious to know if you could elaborate more about your list topper:
1) Looking at other products for inspiration.
Also, does this encompass the products which are evaluated to inform one’s self about the pros and cons of the current competitive landscape?

I thought this was a good question. In fact, I felt it was so damn good that I decided to reproduce my reply in this post.
First off, Rogue thanks for asking and taking the time to leave your comments.
In short the answer deeply depends on how you intend to use the information derived from your competitive study.
If your intention is to use the results of this research exercise or market audit for “foresight” purposes then please go ahead as it is the right thing to do. For example, you first look at what is going on out there in the marketplace. After that you use that data to synthesize a trend. Finally you use that trend to predict what is going to be the next big thing so that your new design concepts reflect that.
The problem is designers tend to use this information for “hindsight” purposes. In other words using this information to see what has already done, so that they don’t “copy” what is out there. So my point that designers should not “Look at other products for inspiration” is by doing so, you might create work that, by the time it gets produced, will likely compete with an existing product. What is worst is that if your development cycle is long, your design could be seen as “so last season”! The net result is your designs will always chasing the competition not leading it.
At the end of the day there is nothing really wrong at “looking”. It is how you use that information that matters.

  • DT

    March 15, 2009 at 9:31 am Reply

    @Michael: Sorry for the late reply, so let me get into it right away. What you have mentioned is one of the realities of our business. However “novelty” can have a strong place if it is backed by good consumer research.
    @rogue: I’m glad it help!

  • Rogue

    March 9, 2009 at 10:56 am Reply

    Dear DT,
    Thank you so much for the detailed clarification – this resonates with my initial thoughts regarding the original list topper when it came to looking at other products for inspiration.

  • Michael

    December 19, 2008 at 11:36 am Reply

    Good clarification on how designers should use existing products for inspiration.
    Your post reminds me of a related point. Designer are also guilty of looking at existing products in order to avoid common details in favor of more novel ones. The reality is, sometimes these details are semantic signals that help consumers understand features. We aim for novelty more often than we probably should.

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