Customers’ opinions only improve the development of certain types of products, according to Jan van den Ende, Professor of Management of Technology and Innovation at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).
New functions or technology can be improved by customer opinion, but for products designed to suit the identity of the user, it can hinder their market success.
Van den Ende, alongside colleagues Marina Candi and Gerda Gemser, interviewed both the business and leading product managers of 132 recent innovation products to measure customer involvement against revenue and profitability.
Jan says: “Developing products in co-operation with customers is a fashionable practice in product design. If you involve customers repeatedly during the innovation process, their feedback is not bound by company history or only attached to current innovations, which makes them more creative. Yet our research found that this was only the case when customers were involved in the development of functions or technology in a product – for example by involving surgeons in the design of a new surgical instrument. This is because feedback from potential customers early in the design process helps to create the best functioning prototypes.
“When customers were involved in hedonic innovations, designed to create an emotional experience or suit the identity of the user such as a pair of fashionable shoes or a smartphone, the reverse was true. As Steve Jobs said, customers do not know what they want until we’ve shown them.”
When designing innovative hedonic products, asking what customers want can actually reduce the chance of market success.
Jan says: “Innovations of an aesthetic nature, designed to convey emotional experience or express one’s identity, often rely on the element of surprise, which makes customer involvement more complicated. For these kinds of products, success is often the result of a more social process, with public opinion usually shaped by reviews and reception on social media. For example, who is endorsing the product and who hates it? These reactions can be hard to predict by involving customers at the design stage.”