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Innovation Lessons From Italian Furniture Design

Innovation Lessons From Italian Furniture Design

| On 21, Feb 2008

James Todhunter

I stumbled upon an interesting article courtesy of the developerlife blog.  The article, “Radical Design, Radical Results”, is found on the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge site and presents some fascinating insights from HBS visiting scholar Roberto Verganti.

Verganti was involved in a study of 100 Italian furniture design firms to try and gain some understanding of how companies manage design innovation.  The study was done by classifying 2000 objects along a number of dimensions such as shape, color, surface and material.  The study also distinguished between innovators (companies that have been nominated or awarded the Compasso d’Oro prize) and imitators (everyone else).

[IMG title=”Italian Furniture Design” style=”FLOAT: right; MARGIN: 0px 0px 5px 5px” alt=”Italian Furniture Design” src=”” border=0]

Here are a few points of interest raised in the article.

Verganti is quoted as saying, “It’s hard to understand what people want.”  Certainly, listening to customers is a skill to which many companies don’t devote enough attention.  They are content with collecting raw data and simply scratching their heads when the data doesn’t immediately provide a clear message.  However, this doesn’t mean that customers are not trying to communicate their desires; it only means that they don’t know to articulate their needs and wants in the language designers and engineers are receptive to hearing.

A couple years ago, I saw a fabulous presentation given at The Front End of Innovation conference in Boston by Johnson Controls.  Johnson Controls had conducted research that told them that the property of craftsmanship was something that consumers valued when they evaluated an automotive purchase. Unfortunately, the notion of craftsmanship was not well defined and customers didn’t directly explain what this meant.  Johnson Controls could have ignored the input, or they could have just made up their own definition of craftsmanship.  But they chose to do something really great.  They conducted research to identify specific properties that people use to discern automotive craftsmanship.  This list of visual, aural, tactile, and olfactory cues then was used to develop a system of scoring the property of craftsmanship of a specific item or assembly.  It was a truly inspirational example of digging into customer feedback to better interpret what we are being told.

It is also a good example of why people who fall on the old adage of “the market (or customer) doesn’t know what it wants” have it wrong.  The truth is we often just don’t know how to listen to what the market is telling us.

Another interesting observation in the article is the contrast in behavior of innovators and imitators.  The study found that innovators tend to have less variety in the product lines than imitators.  While the researchers found this result surprising, I don’t.  When you consider the goals of design innovation—unique brand identify, market place differentiation – and the need to recoup the investment in innovations, very wide diversity in the product line doesn’t really map that well to these goals.

Whether you consider you products or services to be design intensive or not, the lessons from the article are valuable.

[Crossposted from]