What Does Having a “Design View” Mean to You?

I believe there are many answers to that question. Let’s consider some of them.

One aspect of is certainly the industrial design of your product. I recently wrote a blog post on this very subject. I believe many companies who manufacture industrial products in particular ignore this very important aspect of product design. Organizations run by engineers focus so much of their creative energy on performance and the technology that apple_ipad_2I believe they miss an opportunity to create an emotional bond with customers, and enhance competitive advantage. Think of the Ipad®. Do you believe its design evokes an emotional response and influences the purchase decision? It is also important to consider how you want to treat industrial design across the entire product portfolio. Even if different products have radically different form factors, a common industrial design “theme” will set your company apart from the competition.

Another facet related to industrial design is the user interface (UI) and how the customer will interact with the product. This interaction may be through a touchscreen or buttons that are either labeled or use icons. It extends to UI for computer software as well. In any case, is the interface natural? Is it intuitive? In many instances, it is worth the investment to hire outside resources to assist with the design. Small and mid-sized companies especially can benefit from outside consultants if the project budget allows for it.

A third characteristic is how the product will be distributed, serviced and supported. On the surface this is not strictly a function of the product’s design, but it could be. Remote service via the internet or built-in diagnostic tools would need to be part of the design and will likely influence architectural decisions. There are a couple resources that relate to this subject. A recent blog post discusses this issue from the standpoint of competitive advantage as does a fascinating article in the December 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review. The article relates how Kiva, a company that supplies automated material handling systems, is disrupting the existing warehouse material handling industry not only by using robotic technology, but also in terms of how they are delivering the solutions that customers want.

A dimension not strictly related to the design, but certainly related to the fact that NPD is a business function, is how you integrate the industrial design of your products with the overall marketing effort. This extends to the website, brochures, advertisements, or any marketing collateral. Just as I believe it is important to have consistent industrial design “theme” across the entire product line, there is no doubt that integrating that theme with the positioning and marketing is very important. You want to establish a brand image, and a common sense approach is to make sure you integrate the industrial design with the marketing collateral. This will help support the product positioning. Again, I believe that many small to mid-sized companies who manufacture highly engineered products disregard this very basic, but important marketing concept.

Do you regularly read books, articles, and other media from outside your area of expertise? For instance, if you are an engineer managing an R&D organization and comfortable with the technical aspects of your job, when was the last time you read a book or periodically on pop culture? How about on “emotional intelligence” or marketing? Do you only interact with like-minded people? I think today it is extremely important to expand your view of the world. Remember that innovation has two aspects: there is the technology of course, but it is the application of that technology to solve a customer problem that determines whether a product will be innovative. Most customers do not value the technology just for its own sake, but for what it can do for them or how it makes them feel. I believe strongly that expanding your view of the world, reading widely in and outside your area of expertise, and opening your eyes to all the things happening around you can spur creativity. It can help you connect ideas. It is this clash of ideas from different disciplines that drives so much of the innovation today. What are you doing to foster that within your organization? So the next time you have some spare time in an airport, pick-up a couple totally random periodical selections and enjoy! I am willing to bet you will find some connection between the ideas in these articles and what you are doing in your “day job”.

And finally, I believe an important concept is what Roger Martin in his 2009 book entitled “The Design of Business” describes as the “knowledge funnel”. As shown in the figure all Knowledge Funnelideas start as mysteries. This can relate to either a product or a process. At this stage, a company is inventing. They are struggling with making sense of a problem. At some point, engineers may develop a heuristic, or a rule of thumb to narrow the field of inquiry, and focus on a certain aspect of the problem.  There are likely some “experts” in the company who can interpret the problem and hold the key to creating value. Ultimately, every company strives to develop an “algorithm”. This allows a task or process to be done over and over again without mistakes and with a high level of quality. Think about the NPD process. We may start with some level of mystery, build prototypes and answer questions along the way, finally getting to the stage where manufacturing has developed procedures so that technicians can reliably build and test the product without relying on high-value, high-cost engineers being involved on a day-to-day basis. Moving across the stages is considered exploration or the search for new knowledge, and working within a stage is exploitation.

Martin’s book makes the case that companies need both to survive long term. They need to explore and they need to exploit. The problem is that just about every business strives for moving down the funnel to create maximum efficiency. We strive to codify every process in the business. It takes progressive, well-informed  management in existing companies to recognize this and make sure that part of the resources are being spent moving back up to mysteries rather than continuing to exploit existing knowledge. If they are not, then another company somewhere else may be doing that. That is the essence of the concept of disruption and is also illustrated in the same Harvard Business Review article on Kiva referenced previously.

So, back to the original question: What does a “design view” mean to you? Do the concepts above make sense? Are there other concepts that should be included in my list? What do you think of the concept of the “knowledge funnel”? Would you say your organization is primarily involved with exploration, exploitation, or a combination?

New Product Visions is a consulting company that helps organizations improve the effectiveness of their new product development processes. We specialize in small to mid-sized companies that manufacture highly engineered products. Contact us today about how we might help you!

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