Article: Monday, 5 September 2016

‘Always listen to your customer’ might not be the best advice when designing new products, says Professor Jan van den Ende of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). The results of his new study show that including customers in the design process is a good idea only when developing radical innovations designed around functionality. He found that companies that design radically new innovations for aesthetics, or for an emotional experience or to suit the identity of the user, are better off not involving customers. For these kinds of ‘hedonic’ innovations, asking what customers want can even reduce the chance of market success, the researchers found.

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When ignoring customers’ opinions can lead to more successful products

Developing products in co-operation with customers is a fashionable practice in product design, says Van den Ende. But so far, studies of the effects of customers’ contributions to market success are not conclusive.

Some researchers claim that customers’ fresh thoughts allow them to break from the traditional company mould and come up with brilliant ideas for new products more easily. They are also not bound by the company’s history and are not attached to current innovations, which makes them more creative innovators.

Other studies have suggested that customer opinions cannot predict a product’s market success because customers do not have the design expertise and are usually not very good at judging prototypes that look unlike anything they have seen before.

The reception of a hedonic innovation is a complicated social process that is very hard to predict by involving potential customers in the design stage.

Functional or hedonic

Van den Ende and his co-authors Marina Candi and Gerda Gemser were intrigued by these contradictions and suspected that the value of the customer’s input could depend on the type of innovation under development. The researchers distinguish between utilitarian innovations and hedonic innovations:

1. Utilitarian Innovations

Create new functions or technology in a product

2. Hedonic Innovations

Designed to convey radical new sensorial or emotional experiences or new identity expressions in a product or service

To test this idea, the researchers studied 132 recent innovation projects in Dutch firms by interviewing each business manager and leading project manager. Was their innovation more utilitarian or hedonic in nature? How had customers been involved in the development, and had the product become a market success? Success was defined by customers’ level of acceptance of the product, the revenues it had generated and its profitability.

Utilitarian innovations

The results showed that involving customers in product development led to more market success for radical innovations that were mostly utilitarian. But for hedonic innovations, co-development with customers actually decreased the chances of market success.

Van den Ende says these results can be explained by looking at differences in the design process. Every step of the design process for a successful functional innovation requires the company to make decisions about the technical and functional properties of the product or service. Feedback from potential customers, especially early in the design process, can help to limit the options to be explored before the final product is finalised. That makes customer feedback valuable for utilitarian innovations, especially if they are radical, says Van den Ende.

Hedonic innovations

For hedonic innovations, market success is often the result of a social process, Van den Ende continues. Who is rooting for the innovation in the product on social media, and who hates it? How does this public discussion change public opinions of the product? And importantly, what do expert reviewers say? The reception of a hedonic innovation is a complicated social process that is very hard to predict by involving potential customers in the design stage. Hedonic innovations also frequently rely on an element of surprise, so asking customers how they would like to be surprised does not lead to the most innovative answers, van den Ende concludes.

Prof. Jan van den Ende

Professor of Management of Technology and Innovation

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)

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