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The Design of Things to Come – Book Review – Arpan Sheth

by on November 2, 2008

The Design of Things to Come: How Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Products. Craig M. Vogel, Jonathan Cagan, Peter Boatwright. Wharton School Publishing, 2005. 237 pp. $29.99 (ISBN 0-131-86082-8)

The current market scenario portrays a very bleak picture for companies that are competing on the basis of cost. The cost of technology, a major factor that prevented small companies from investing in technology to make there products better is decreasing. In addition, with the outsourcing and availability of cheap and quality labor overseas, it has become important for organizations to change to a completely new innovation process of product development that not only provides the required functions but also adds value to consumer’s life. This book exactly answers the above problem of competitive edge and explains a process that will help organizations to shift from a cost centric to a differentiation based innovation. This book breaks down the product/service innovation method into logical parts. The book takes a user centered approach and explains the importance of product developer and product user, the key stakeholders in the product innovation process. The authors have taken this differentiation and user centered approach and coined the term “Pragmatic Innovation” which is used through out the book. They have also provided a framework for identifying future product trends that helps in recognizing the concealed product opportunities.

This book is a collaborative work of experts from Architecture (Vogal), Mechanical Engineering (Cagan) and Marketing (Boatwright) domains. The three dimensional approach has lead to the interdisciplinary product that can be used by the experienced as well as a newbie product managers. The book gives very informative examples of innovators who were responsible for successful products. Every chapter in the book starts with a scenario related to a product that has been explained further in the chapter. These scenarios though are hypothetical but are helpful in understanding the context and the lifestyle of the product consumer. Scenarios are accompanied by drawings of the products that help readers to get a foresight of what to expect from the chapter.

The book explains the common traits of “the new breed of innovators” (p.17). There are three examples of innovators who sum up there approach towards managing innovation. Fostering innovation based culture across organization, making resources available to an interdisciplinary team and deciding on the product features that are aligned with business strategy are the three common traits that has been an underlying success factor of these innovators.

The authors talk about Pragmatic Innovation through out the book. They explain that “Pragmatic innovation is a balanced approach that not only explores a range of interesting alternatives but converts that exploration into successful, profitable products. Pragmatic innovation is a process of inspired management of diverse teams working on a significant opportunity in the market.”(p. 24) The authors underline that companies should focus not only on developing products that add value to a consumer by providing the desired functionality and exceeding customer expectations, but the companies also should encourage ideas that are both “profitable and marketable” (p.24). The book on one extreme provides an example of instilling the pragmatic innovation in a 100 year old Ford company. On the other extreme, it also explains how startups like BodyMedia have used the pragmatic innovation approach to develop the SenseWear armband monitor. Both examples show how companies that took a risk to move from invention to innovation maintained their competitive leadership in otherwise, cost centric markets. They achieved this edge by analyzing the lifestyles of the customer and developing new market segments.

It is a general belief that innovation occurs accidently while people are looking for something else. The book counter attacks this belief and claims that there is a definite set of “procedure” that fosters creativity and encourages the process of innovation. Examples of the process involved in the development of Adidas 1 shoes and Mirra Chair backs these counter attacks. The book explains the concept as “satisficing” and “fuzzy front end” (p. 58). The authors explain that the chance of product success increases if organizations and individuals identify the market segment upfront. Researching on the target market provides an insight into the problems that can be answered by the product that organizations design. This bottom-up approach towards product creation is important as it helps to connect to the consumer better by identifying the gaps that if filled will add value to consumers’ daily life. A framework involving the “Social, Economic and Technological (SET)” (p. 73) is also provided, which helps organization to identify the future trends. An iPod is provided as one of the major example of a product that was developed using the SET framework. It seems that the scenario based approach that is used through out the book is a great way to capture these SET trends. This helps in identifying and understanding the real problems, converting these problems into opportunities and then realizing them.

The highlight of the book is the explanation of a novel path to product creation. The authors suggest that current product economy is different from the conventional “form and function” (p. 90) based economy where products satisfied the basic expectation of the user. But now, it has converted to and an “experience economy” (p.91) where users “buy experience”. The book suggests that the success factor of the product depends on how well it fulfills the fantasy of the consumer using form and function. An example of OXO peeler that has both the functionality and an ergonomic design providing a delightful experience for older user is given to explain this concept. One of the most interesting examples of the book is the use of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books as an outcome of innovation based product development method. The authors have used this example to show how the Harry Potter books have connected themselves on the emotional level with the user, and how these books are providing an extraordinary experience from unless an ordinary product.

A chapter of the book is dedicated to illustrate the significance of performing Stakeholder Analysis. The authors have suggested the “Power of 10” (p.105) methodology to identify the people who can affect the success of product and who can get affected by the product. It appears to be an excellent framework to identify the both immediate and remote stakeholders. This “Power of 10” methodology suggests identifying the smallest aspect of product, then it identifies users at that level and then performs the same analysis by zooming out until the largest aspect of the product is identified. An example of Lubrizol Company’s Emulsified Heating Fuel is provided to show how the company identified the potential problems at various levels and rectified it during the initial stages of product development that lead to a massive success of the product. This portion also describes the importance of team based approach to a product. An underlying feature of the book is its emphasis on early involvement of people from different organization departments like marketing, research, advertisement and engineering. It has been suggested that this interdisciplinary brainstorming leads to recognition of the problems earlier in the innovation process.

The authors have taken a bold approach to show that the innovation based product development method used for consumer goods can be used for the industrial (B2B) products. The general consensus towards the success criteria of an industrial product is the technological superiority that it has over its competitors. But, an interesting example of a robot used to cut the sewer pipes is provided to imply that great an experience can be provided even to an expert industrial user which satisfies his/her desires and expectation.

The book also tries to encompass the business dimension of the innovation process. The authors agree that innovation process will have chaos, but they suggest looking at it positively as “chaos enables exploration and learning. The more you can learn about your market, the better the framework for your decisions.” They imply that to make a profit out of the product, it is necessary to make a conscious choice of the available options on the table. They suggest analyzing the pros and cons about subsystem performance by taking the holistic product to be developed for consideration.

A discussion on defending the product from competitors taking advantage of an organization’s technology and innovation process is also provided. Various methods like Utility Patents that “protects the innovation in functionality and manufacturing”, Design Patents, Trade Secret, Provisional Patents that gives a company to test the design for one year on a low price are discussed in brief. This chapter is an extension to the book’s focus on creating products. It strengthens are the authors’ attempt to provide a comprehensive resource on innovation.

On the similar lines of providing a comprehensive resource, a significant focus is given in helping companies to decide whether they should hire a design consulting firm or develop the product internally. The authors give a good suggestion that a company should look for a balance between the internal and external resources. It remains important even after hiring the external consulting firms to work shoulder to shoulder with them. This gives an opportunity for the company to learn to share the common vision of the product. The company should hire consultants to “balance the soft and hard qualities” (p. 214) of the company and consulting firm respectively.

In the end, the book discusses 6 factors which will shape the future of the innovation process. Various examples of “individuals, organizations, market segments, regional impact, global economy, and the new renaissance team of innovators” (p. 222) are provided that help in understanding the success factor of the pragmatic innovation.

In conclusion, the book is a great starting point for anyone who wants to understand the intricacies of user centered product development. It has some great examples in the form of scenarios of target consumers, case studies of successful products and anecdotes of great innovators. The book uses a lucid and easy writing style to make the concepts comprehensible and easy to remember. The authors have tried to provide various dimensions to pragmatic innovation, but the core of the book depends on and rightly so on the consumer goods as well as the stakeholder analysis. It develops an understanding about the process of creating great products and an insight into some of the great companies’ product development processes.

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