Innovative companies don’t listen to their users?

“When furniture designer Herman Miller presented a prototype of its sleek, mesh Aeron chair to a consumer focus group, many asked if they could see a finished, upholstered version.”

Aeron chair photo

In Radical Design, Radical Results, Harvard Business School has describes research into the innovation practices and results of Italian furniture companies.

While the article bombastically proclaims that “companies that do radical innovation do not listen to users,” it relies on an oft-stated conflation between doing what your users say they want and listening to their narratives to analyze their frames, generating your own scenarios.

In fact, Verganti finds that companies that innovate successfully (defined by the researchers as winning a design award) use a “see and launch” strategy, employing “some sort of research processs,” usually trend finding and scenario building rather than focus groups, and then launching products based on that research.

Less successful was the “launch and see” approach, where lots of products are put out there, relying on customers’ ability to hone in on the good stuff so market numbers can decide. This reminds me of Google’s mythical “launch early, launch often” process. The study also found “wait and see” — imitating trends that are successful in the market — an expensive way to innovate since getting in on the game early enough means you can’t really call the winners, so you end up copying a lot.

“Apple is a company that is pushed by a vision,” Verganti says. “Steve Jobs has said that the market doesn’t always know what it wants. Companies that do radical innovation do not listen to users; they eventually value market feedback, but first they propose things to the users.”

Apple’s design process is an object of much mystery to the design world, but from what we’ve gathered from friends working there, they don’t have a huge usability lab or in-depth inspirational field studies. This isn’t to say that those aren’t necessary tools, but there’s a real question of when and how those tools are useful and whether they are the only ones. The article describes Apple as a successfully innovating company, but is Apple a “launch and see” company or a “see and launch” company? Even if they are “launch and see,” these studies are all about tendencies, not hard-and-fast rules.

The work has been published in more detail in an academic article.

You can also check out Bill Cockayne’s piece on the Aeron (pdf) from Ambi issue 6.

1 Comment »

  1. El Cosmonauta: Estrategias en la investigación de usuario Said,

    February 20, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

    [...] Pensando y buscando relfexiones sobre la verdadera/falsa dicotomía entre innovación e investigación de usuario, me he topado con un texto titulado Radical Design, Radical Results, referenciado por el siempre interesante Ambidextrous Blog. [...]

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