“The Newton was seen as an underperforming computer, and the Palm Pilot was an over-performing note pad.”
From McCombs TODAY:
If there were a National Museum of Failed Products, the display cases would be full, but would anyone come?
On display might be the Apple Newton PDA, Macintosh TV, the New Coke (and to be fair, Crystal Pepsi), Tivo, various attempts at tablet PCs, and even the Jay Leno Show.
Obviously, predicting product winners isn’t easy, despite millions of dollars spent on R&D and consumer focus groups.
Violina Rindova, Ph.D., studies product form design, and argues that product form is an inseparable aspect of a product innovation strategy. Her analysis shows that product form design affects both how consumers conceptualize and respond emotionally to new products. These emotional responses to novelty may be the little-understood cause of why so many companies miss the mark with their new products.
People Find Novelty Stressful
“Our analysis shows that novelty is stressful and can trigger negative emotions for consumers,” Rindova explains. “So a company must find ways to help consumers overcome the stress and resolve the uncertainty that new things make us experience.
Our research suggests that product form design is key to this process. It isn’t just an ease-of-use issue, although ease-of-use is very important. At a deeper level, our sense of what is valuable depends on often unconscious expectations about how things ’should be.’ So, product form design affects how consumers relate initially to a new product and how this initial emotional reaction influences how they come to think about what the product is.”
One way to achieve quicker acceptance or understanding of an innovative product is to activate pre-existing understandings about the product category. Rindova uses the example of digital cameras to illustrate the point.
“A digital camera is closer in technology to a scanner,” she says. “But consumers understand what a camera is, how it feels, how it functions, even how it sounds. The rapid adoption of digital cameras is, in part, related to the fact that they replicate the form of traditional cameras so closely. As a result, they are easily understood and accepted.”
Although logical, this view of product form is far from the norm among technology companies. Product form is often considered a superficial design aspect, not really a source of value, but Rindova argues that choosing the right product form is essential to the competitive positioning, as well as the evaluation of the product by consumers.
“The criticism of Apple’s Newton is that it failed in the writing recognition, but that was primarily because it was compared to a computer. The Palm Pilot did a lot less than the Newton, but its point of comparison was a note pad. The Newton was seen as an underperforming computer, and the Palm Pilot was an over-performing note pad.”
Product Form Becomes an Innovation Strategy
Rindova sees an increased understanding among manufacturers that product design is a strategic decision.
“Product developers are taking it more seriously as part of the innovation strategy of the firm,” she states. “There is an emotional component to product design, and you can choose to manage it strategically or not. You can’t separate the technological path and the product form path, but rather these notions should be integrated from the beginning of the product development process.”
Rindova explains that such integration flies in the face of traditional product development scenarios, particularly in technology fields. “The engineering culture of technology and science, and the designer culture, with people trained in the arts and humanities not only have vast knowledge differences, but different logics as well,” she says.
“And the third constraint is that doing product form design right is expensive. There are firms, such as Apple, that have a better track record than others in achieving the balance of technology and experience, and they are able to capture premium pricing as a result.”
In a continuation of her studies on product design, Rindova is currently working with colleagues in Italy studying firms such as Alessi, that have become known as “The Italian design factories” because they have successfully integrated cutting-edge design in product development for many traditional products, such as cooking pots and bottle-openers.
These designers undoubtedly hope their creations do not end up as negative case histories for Rindova’s research.
Violina Rindova is the Ralph B. Thomas Regents Professor in Business, the Department of Management at the McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin.
When is a New Thing a Good Thing? Technological Change, Product Form Design, and Perceptions of Value for Product Innovations was published in Organization Science.