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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.
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1. S.L. Brown and K.M. Eisenhardt, “Product Development: Past Research, Present Findings and Future Directions,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 2 (April 1995): 343–378; K.B. Clark and T. Fujimoto, “Product Development Performance: Strategy, Organization and Management in the World Auto Industry” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991), 23; R. Cooper and M. Press, “The Design Agenda: A Guide to Successful Design Management” (Chichester, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), 1–3, 7–50; and G.L. Urban and J.R. Hauser, “Design and Marketing of New Products,” 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1993), 40–42, 54, 164–175.
2. J.B. Quinn, “Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategy,” Sloan Management Review 20, no. 3 (spring 1979): 19–30; and M. Schrage, “Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Stimulate To Innovate” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 12–13, 18–19, 92–93, 104–106.
3. V. Walsh, R. Roy, M. Bruce and S. Potter, “Winning by Design: Technology, Product Design and International Competitiveness” (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 4–5, 55–117.
4. P. Kotler and G.A. Rath, “Design: A Powerful but Neglected Strategic Tool,” Journal of Business Strategy 5, no. 2 (fall 1984): 16–21.
5. A.W. Ulwick, “Turn Customer Input Into Innovation,” Harvard Business Review 80, no. 1 (January 2002): 91–97; M. Vandenbosch and N. Dawar, “Beyond Better Products: Capturing Value in Customer Interactions,” MIT Sloan Management Review 43, no. 4 (summer 2002): 35–42; and P.M. Dholakia and V.G. Morwitz, “How Surveys Influence Customers,” Harvard Business Review 80, no. 5 (May 2002): 18–19.
6. A. Khurana and S.R. Rosenthal, “Towards Holistic ‘Front Ends’ in New Product Development,” Journal of Product Innovation Management 15, no. 1 (January 1998): 57–74; and G. Bacon, S. Beckman, D. Mowery and E. Wilson, “Managing Product Definition in High-Technology Industries: A Pilot Study,” California Management Review 36, no. 3 (spring 1994): 32–56.
7. A. Hargadon and R.I. Sutton, “Technology Brokering and Innovation in a Product Development Firm,” Administrative Science Quarterly 42, no. 4 (December 1997): 716–749.
8. T. Kristensen and G. Lojacono, “Commissioning Design: Evidence From the Furniture Industry,” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 14, no. 1 (March 2002): 107–121.
9. D. Hill, “Body of Truth: Leveraging What Consumers Can’t or Won’t Say” (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 95–116.
10. G. Zaccai and J. Heppner, “Design Strategy and Strategic Design at Master Lock,” Design Management Journal 13, no. 11 (winter 2002): 18–25.