In the literature on design, product development and innovation, the word “design” refers to many things: a creative art, a phase of product development, a set of functional characteristics, an aesthetic quality, a profession and more.1 In the lexicon of more and more companies, however, the word has come to denote the totality of activities and competencies that gather all relevant information and transform it into a new product or service. Design is understood as a core activity conferring competitive advantage by bringing to light the emotional meaning products and services have, or could have, for consumers and by extracting the high value of such emotional connections. This evolution is creating the design-focused enterprise, an organization that uses consumer-centered product development to move quickly and effectively from intimate customer knowledge to successful product and service offerings.
While this development has been written about from a theoretical viewpoint,2 there has been little practical discussion. Much has been written about design’s ability to increase productivity, product performance3 and the value of the emotional connection with customers,4 but little about design’s contribution to an overall better understanding of the consumer. There has been discussion of the role of consumer knowledge in driving innovation but not of the practical techniques for letting consumers’ unspoken, often unconscious, needs and desires emerge and for infusing such insights into all functional teams.
Nevertheless, consumer-centered product design is an emerging best practice in many industries, particularly those characterized by practical products that hold no emotional appeal; or in which competition is based on increasingly less profitable attempts to cut cost or improve performance; or where once distinctive products are becoming commoditized; or where there is little room left for product innovation. Among these best practitioners, design is viewed as the art and science of putting all the pieces together — technical, financial, operational and emotional. As most companies already lavish quite a bit of expertise on the technical, financial and operational aspects of what they do, it is the equal focus on the emotional connection with customers that stands out as novel. Further, among such design-focused companies, this newly coequal dimension influences and informs the others, producing new and unexpected results.