Designing a cool new product may not be the most effective way to mine business opportunities.
``Companies need to move from styling activities to structured qualitative user research,'' said Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
At the Plastics News Executive Forum, held Feb. 25-28 in San Diego, the industrial design expert suggested conducting user research to discover new trends in established areas and to make sense of foreign markets.
Whitney, head of the largest graduate school of design in the United States, pointed out the power shift from the producer to the user. ``If you look at the rise of technology and globalization, one thing it's doing is giving consumers more choice.''
Outsourcing has made manufacturing a commodity, and flexible production has gained popularity in the networked world. The consumer is now in control.
``Give me what I want, when I want it, in my style'' is the prevailing attitude among consumers, Whitney said. ``By the way, I want it close to free, certainly cheaper than it was last year. That's where the voice of power is coming from.''
The increasing availability of choices for consumers makes their life patterns more complex, therefore more difficult to understand from a manufacturer's perspective. Meantime, industry continues to grow and expand business models and technological capabilities, resulting in what Whitney called ``innovation gap'' - the gap between organizational knowledge and daily life knowledge.
``The manufacturers know so much about how to make anything, but [they're] not sure what to make.''
Styling, which used to be companies' core understanding of design, is insufficient. ``Things need to look good, but that's not enough. It's the price of entry, but it's not the way to compete.''
So what's the solution? Whitney suggested reversing the product-development flow.
When production and manufacturers were in control, they would ``start with business model and technology, then conceive concepts, and then move to user engagement.'' But the model does not make sense any more.
``The flow is now observing people's daily lives, using that to create concepts and then, from this wealth of business and technological knowledge, choosing business models and technological deployment.''
In order to create economic and user value, Whitney said, corporate leaders need a new method of doing user research. Most companies do product-centered research: ``They start with a product they have,'' he said. Product-centered research tends to lead to concrete and incremental improvement, but it does not broaden the view. ``You never get the big ideas.''
Most companies now also do ethnographic research. This type of culture-centered research can offer expansive ideas, but they are not easily applicable. ``You don't know what to do with them.''
The middle ground is activity-centered research. For the plastics industry, activity-centered research can help people understand where the original equipment manufacturers and end users are going. It also provides opportunities for suppliers to influence OEMs by integrating with OEM's research and development.