Design driven communication in NPD processes
“Designers can improve the product development process by creating visual tools for clear and inspiring communication that brings out the best from everyone who is involved”
1. Who we are
We are Casper Vos and Jelle Langeraap, and we propose a new role for a new type of designer. At Industrial Design in Eindhoven we are not trained as traditional industrial designers, but as designers of intelligent systems for societal transformation . Traditionally, the most important task of industrial designers is in the area of product appearance and styling , which ties in closely with the focus of conventional design schools. We do not replace this role. Our capacity in the new product development process is centered on creating opportunities in which technology brings new meaning to people’s lives.
We design product concepts by shaping the consumer experience; what a person feels and thinks when interacting with a product or system. Our approach to design is holistic and multi-disciplinary because we can design the consumer experience across all touch points, from advertising, to product purchase, to a long-term dynamic interaction between the consumer and the product.
2. The strategic value of design
In the past we have seen the evolution of competitive advantages through design from Design for Production, to Design for Selling, to Design for Quality, to Design for User Satisfaction. What will the future bring? We believe that Design for User Satisfaction is not the final strategy. A person can be perfectly satisfied with your product at one point, but an external stimulus, like a competing product, or a targeted awareness campaign can completely shift your customer’s satisfaction 180 degrees in the opposite direction. A good example of this principle in action is the “plofkip” campaign by Wakkerdier. This Dutch animal rights group radically changed the user satisfaction of chicken meat consumers  by making people aware that chickens for meat production are nothing like our image of a normal healthy chicken. How can companies deal with this seemingly arbitrary shift in what their customers want?
It is easy for producers to respond: we gave you what you wanted. You wanted cheap chicken meat of consistent quality, so that’s what we supplied. Here lies the tension point, because we have to acknowledge that in essence people do not know what they want . First people thought they wanted cheap and consistent chicken meat, now they want it to be more animal friendly. Only when a convincing argument is made and an alternative is shown will the majority of consumers change their behavior. We think that in the future the position “we produce what you want” will no longer be accepted by consumers. In a world where we are already flooded with information, people will appreciate a company that acts responsibly and in accordance with universal ethics; internally, without the need for some external group to police the system.
From value proposition to valuable products
We believe that most companies are perfectly capable of laying out a vision that customers can relate to, but that somehow, some products of the company can become detached from this vision. This can happen after launch, when the market – for better or worse – gives a meaning to the product that was not anticipated. Or it can happen during the new product development process where at some point the product’s meaning can get lost. We think that design can improve the bond between the perceived product meaning and the brand identity. In other words: designers can improve the NPD process by ensuring that the initial value proposition is meaningful from the customer’s standpoint, and by communicating this message throughout the development process, to all people that are involved.
Why are designers good communicators?
Why are designers suited to this role? Well, we are trained to explain complex subjects in layman’s terms because our proposals have to make sense from the standpoint of our target user. They are generally not experts on material properties, micro-controllers, or emotional psychology, so that is why we explain concepts by telling a story, or by making a prototype that people can try out. Experts tend to talk in jargon because that is how they can communicate their knowledgeable position and underpin their competence. That’s great when experts of the same discipline are talking to each other, but new product development has many disciplines. So when an engineer talks about the Young’s modulus of the material that an industrial designer proposed because of its tangible affordance, they might be talking about the same thing but be in absolute confusion as to what the other person is saying. We think that smart communication tools can increase the effectiveness of a company’s internal communication by promoting clear and simple language, whilst maintaining the opportunity for experts to express their competence.
3. Our business proposal
To give you a first view of what our smart communication tool would look like, we present the context of a consultancy firm that focuses on improving communication in NPD processes. With this firm we target companies that are weak in cross-disciplinary communication as shown by :
• Products that do not match their value propositions
• A lack of coherence in customer experience between different parts of a product or system
• A high percentage of failed products
To these companies we would present a service, where designers from our consultancy firm would work together with the company to improve their NPD process. We have designed a software tool for mapping out the value and meaning of a product throughout the stages of the NPD process, incorporating the different company divisions.
This version of the tool consists of five discs (Brand, Idea, User insight, Market, and Launch) each containing an collection of information that is essential to the development process. In terms of content the tool is based on other well-known tools such as the value ladder, value house by Philips, and the Marketing Funnel . Research on these tools has shown that the information they try to gather is indeed indicative of a product’s business success, but what actually comes out are really vague statements. For example, the value house for Philips ambilight television states the key user insight as: “Sometimes you are looking for the most immersive viewing experience”. To us, this insight does not seem very insightful at all. When am I looking for the most immersive experience? And why? If all I wanted was some immersion from time to time, wouldn’t a trip to the cinema be the best option?
We took the Philips ambilight television as an example product to explain our own tool. Instead of stating that you need 3-5 product benefits or some other pre-defined format, our tool is centered around a main question for each of the areas. The User disc for example, asks: “Why would the target consumer buy this product?”. There is only room for a short answer, so you really have to think about the essential thing that makes your product unique and desirable. Around this answer you would build a visual validation, using a scenario, persona, movie, or whatever explains your proposition in a clear way. These main questions are located on the label on the outside of the disc, so that when you are working in a particular area (on a particular disc), you always see the main concerns of the other areas, making you more aware of the complete picture. By making certain areas of the disc transparent you could also show specific connections. You could visualize how the brand identify “shines through” the product identity. This might seem beneficial at first, but we should not fall into the trap of trying to identity all links and pre-defining what everything means. Using the tool should be a creative exercise not a chore, and the people who are working with our tool should find their own meaningful connections across the discs.
What makes our tool unique?
As a service that we provide to the company, the tool guides our interaction with the company but in itself is not a miracle solution (yet). We think that the real improvement in NPD process communication comes from the moment when people of different disciplines together work on filling out the discs. The tool mediates this interaction and triggers people to look at the broader perspective and consider the opinions of other people. What separates our tool from other value proposition tools like the Value House, is the use of visual communication and that questions are asked in a way that prevents jargon and stimulates clear, value-oriented communication.
We have presented a cross-disciplinary communication tool that is designed to facilitate clear communication in NPD processes. We think that the strategic value of designers can be to improve the product development process by creating visual tools for clear and inspiring communication that brings out the best from everyone who is involved.
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