Identifying New Ideas for Breakthrough Products
This article is derived from the authors' book, Creating Breakthrough Products: Innovation from Product Planning to Program Approval (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0139696946).
A Focus on Consumer Value
The demand by consumers for better products has continued to increase during the last three decades. During the 1980s and early 1990s quality development programs, reengineering and concurrent design were the initiatives that drove American and international companies to constantly improve their products. At the beginning of a new century, the emphasis has shifted from the back end to the front of the product development process. It is increasingly harder to find the right product concept and the time and processes needed to bring that concept to market. Technological innovation and maintaining manufacturing standards are still an intrinsic part of developing successful products; if, however, a product does not connect with the values of consumers, it will fail. People use products to improve their experience while doing tasks. They relate these experiences to their fantasies and dreams. Successful products fulfill a higher emotional value state, whether it is the excitement and security of driving in an SUV, the comfort and effectiveness of cooking in the kitchen, the relaxation and escapism of sipping coffee in a coffeehouse, or the independence and adventure of using a two-way communication device. The mantra that form follows function is no longer relevant; we are now in a period where form and function must fulfill fantasy.
What is it that makes some product programs fail and others succeed? How did Black & Decker corner the flashlight market from 19941997 with a product called the SnakeLight? How could OXO GoodGrips evolve from a single product to a full line of products, a significant market penetration, the most prominently displayed product line in stores that carry the OXO line, and reinvent the profit margins in the industry? How could Motorola develop a major presence in the consumer product category with the hit of one new product, the Talkabout? How could Starbucks, initially a small coffee house in Seattle, reinvent how Americans drink coffee and turn a 50 cent cup o' Joe into a $3.00 Cafe Latte Grande (make that skim milk)? How could the car companies look to the past for ideas that would sell so effectively in the present, starting with the Mazda Miata, following with the Volkswagen Beetle, and continuing with the Chrysler PT Cruiser?
All breakthrough products merge style and technology in a way that maximizes customer value, not based on cost but based on what people need, want and desire.
We have found that there are three key factors that must be present to guarantee the highest potential of success. First is the ability to identify product opportunities. As cultures continue to change, opportunities emerge for new products. These products do not just solve existing problems; they also create possibilities for new experiences. The second is a heightened understanding of customer needs translated into actionable insights leading to product attributes of form and features. In order for products to be successful, they must have features and forms that consumers quickly recognize as useful, usable, and desirable. Third is a true integration of engineering, industrial design, and marketing. Merely putting teams together in a multidisciplinary context is not sufficient. They must be supported and managed effectively in an atmosphere in which each discipline respects and appreciates the perspective of the other. Failure to achieve success in any one of these areas can significantly jeopardize the success of a product, yet most companies are fortunate to be good in even one area. The successful companies have found ways to incorporate the product development trends of the '80s and early '90s into new ways of developing products by including deeper consumer insight and better integration of teams.
While a number of companies claim they use a customer-centered interdisciplinary approach, they have failed to make a total company commitment to this approach. Their management structure encourages a turf mentality through a vertical, or "silo" reporting structure. Customer characteristics are often generated by mass-marketing methods that provide limited insight based solely on highly quantitative surveys. These companies are often hammers looking for nails as they seek new ways to package or repackage impressive but inaccessible technologies. For companies to succeed, they can no longer afford to be either marketing-, technology-, or design-driven. In order to stay competitive, they must integrate the way designers, engineers, market researchers, and market strategists work. Corporations can no longer just rely on large statistical surveys or just search for applications for promising technologies. Instead, qualitative research tools have proven to be an excellent source for deeply understanding the potential customer and product opportunities. This new trend means that companies should plan technological innovation around an insightful understanding of consumer trends and the constant change in the needs, wants, and desires of its customers. Companies must learn to identify opportunities for the potential of products before they think in terms of concrete product concepts.