The appropriateness of getting your customer to design a product for you?

Who would not want to belief in it? As far as anyone can tell it’s the best way to sell to today’s over-informed hyper-consumer. However even after extolling the virtues of it in my post “The Art of the Very Small Start”, I have some major doubts on the validity of this approach especially in the field of consumer electronics.

I have been reading and hearing about how this new business trend of “customer designed” products is going to be the next big thing in consumption. Everything from software, food, toys and electronics can be “crowd-sourced”. Then like magic its money in the bank simply because you are giving the customer what he craves. Are we so sure? Because, from my experience, if there is just one element of doubt, there is no way we can convince the business minds in any organization to adopt this strategy.
I can’t help wonder if it’s all about feeding the vicious cycle of consumption? Such as the excuse of companies introducing new mobile phone models every 4-6 months is only fulfilling consumer demand. At the end of the day is it really not just giving the customer what he wants and not what he needs and at the same time topping up our land fills and killing the environment?
Perhaps I’m naïve, but as designers and when we look at product design solutions we naturally study the customer anyway. Furthermore most designers know that the person that shouts the loudest is often the smallest majority. There for it’s very dangerous to listen to every comment people make both good and bad.

Those of us who have been active in the field of customer-led innovation for a while know that true lead users–the ones who will truly innovate– are not part of the masses. They are the passionate, insightful folks who are in the minority. In fact, the compelling InData graphics based on the data pulled together by Business Week’s Aili McConnon illustrate that point nicely.
The 1% Rule
for user-generated content–
In a group of 100 wired people…
1 will create content..
10 will interact with content….
89 will view the content and interactions.
(Source: Business Week, InData, p. 40, IN, September, 2006)

Via: Outside Innovation
That’s why designers often prefer to observe people incognito and unknown to their subjects. In general, the strange thing about people is that most can give you a detailed list of the things they hate about you, but if you ask them what they like you often get muted one lined answers.
Thus such listening to participatory design initiatives, focus groups or internet feedback just dangerous, rifled with pitfalls and could cause you to “miss the boat” completely. Often the task of managing the feedback “noise” is a full time job that can take a designer away from precious design time.
Mobile Community Design has a list of pitfalls that sums it all up nicely. My favourite is point 1, and do note we are talking about applying crowd-sourcing from scratch and not as a means of getting feedback.

Pitfall 1: Asking participants to design objects themselves
This is different than participants providing feedback or proposed variations on existing designs. Participants are usually not trained designers. Consequently they can produce bad designs or feel uncomfortable doing unfamiliar design activities. A potential solution is to provide participants with simple designs in primitive forms that invite variation and re-appropriation. A related problem is that if users have too much power to control designs, they may advocate poor designs, or designs that avoid automation. Few workers want their jobs replaced, but many automation technologies from traffic lights to ATMs make our lives easier and more effective. Pitfall 2 also relates to another aspect of expecting users to design.

Read more at: Mobile Community Design
From a link recommended to me by Ralf, I would advice any company or designer to not take the easy way out, get your mitts off and try Empathic design. Get down and dirty by living a day in the life in the shoes of your customer. Otherwise you will be just optimizing not innovating. Did you see Apple or Palm sitting in cozy groups asking what people wanted?
In conclusion, it really depends on your type business and if you are a design leader or a design follower. Marketing people and designers really need to think and see if “crowd-sourcing” is relevant to their business. In mass market products like say Dell computers, every little bit of optimization would differentiate you from the rest. But if you are creating premium products like BMW cars or Apple iPods, empathic design may be the best way to go. At the end of the day my advice is to treat “Crowdsourcing” or “Customer-made” as one of the many strategies you can call upon to do your best design work.

1 Comment
  • Sivam

    January 20, 2007 at 11:01 pm Reply

    There are issues in letting customers design, but they can be resolved by using intelligent modeling techniques which set the limits within which customers can create their own designs. We are running a workshop DIY Design to demonstrate this technology.
    The web is increasingly about user created content .Currently it is on 2D it is inevitable that it will move to 3D

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