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The Altered Bride or Lessons Learned from Design Innovators
(Marketing Memo, August, 2008)

Embarrassed young brides must buy wedding gowns a size or two larger than their street clothing since wedding gowns are still designed to fit the less athletic women of the 1950's. Manufacturers of wedding gowns have not recalibrated their patterns to meet the changing needs of their customers. In contrast, manufacturers highlighted in "Product Design: The Journal Report," The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2008, demonstrate a remarkable ability to adapt to their customers' changing needs. Following are five lessons learned from these articles:

  • Become an anthropologist. Observe how people use your offerings in the field. The producer of the first commercial portable masonry saw designed a lightweight saw with the blade on the right side, which was inconvenient for most masons. This error would not have occurred had the company observed masons at work and not relied on reports from contractors and suppliers. A later version of the saw had the blade positioned for use by either the right or the left hand.
  • Seek help from current users when making product improvements. Construction companies cannot hire enough operators of earth moving equipment. To recruit new operators and retain older operators exhausted from manipulating up to 15 levers and three foot pedals, Caterpillar Inc. spent seven years developing a joystick-controlled grader. The company then asked novice and veteran operators to test the prototype. To please both groups of operators, Caterpillar provided the prototype with both a joystick and a steering wheel. Veteran operators came to like the joystick and suggested removing the steering wheels. This design change lowered costs and improved operator visibility.
  • Seize every opportunity to gain market feedback. When Levi Strauss was conducting a focus group of young girls, the company seized a golden opportunity and asked the mothers of the girls what they did not like about their own blue jeans. Using input from the ad hoc mothers group, the company created a new line of affordable, figure-flattering jeans.
  • Find new ways to use existing technology. Caterpillar adapted joystick technology originally intended for computer games. (See the previous example.)
  • Try, try, and try again. A recurring theme in the Wall Street Journal articles is that new product designers develop and test and re-test a succession of prototypes in the lab and in the field to find designs that work. Many manufacturers also ask employees to test their prototypes.

These five lessons indicate that collaborating with customers or users when designing new products is a win-win situation. When you show that you value your customers' input, you also show that you value your customers. Customers feel good about themselves and about your company. This increases brand loyalty. People who have helped design a product have an investment in it.

Copyright Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.

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