By Liberty Hudson, MEng ’23 (ME/Product Design)This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. Why do so many well-designed products fail to make it onto shelves? Why do we reach past the new and improved, in favor of the same items year after year? Why do hyped products not live up to expectations? These are critical questions that anyone looking to successfully launch a product into today’s market should consider. Researchers are constantly striving to develop cutting-edge technology, engineers are working to optimize our lives via efficient invention, and creatives are completely re-designing the products we interact with every day. There is an abundance of choice and blurred understanding of tangible value (Figure 1). The pace of innovation is rapidly accelerating, yet there is a severe mismatch between this evolution and the people it’s supposedly for. Product development needs to involve the consumer perspective throughout the entire process, or risk having no viable market once finally ready to launch. The majority of products provide inherent value to those using them, enough to justify the high cost or effort associated with their purchase. This concept is often referred to as ‘perceived usefulness’ and defined as “the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance” . For example, Apple AirPods (frequently worn to take incoming calls hands-free) are used in a radically different situation than Bose over-ear headphones (often chosen to silence the external environment when playing an instrument), yet at their core they both transmit auditory media.
“If you are a designer, it is imperative to establish both who you are designing for and what needs you are trying to solve at the beginning of any design process. “Without this information, the design will likely end up as either an aesthetic or meaningless artifact. Google Glass serves as a reminder of how severe the divide between consumer expectations and user realities can be. The product (shown in Figure 2) was unveiled in 2012 as a futuristic pair of glasses that integrated augmented reality to improve daily life — how exactly, remains unclear to this day. It has since been revealed that “an impassioned split was forming between X engineers about the most basic functions of Google Glass.” This disagreement centered around when and where the product should be worn to provide the maximum value, which failed to be resolved before launch. A decade later, Google has long abandoned the consumer market and recently launched Glass Enterprise, whose latest product line has an explicit business context in mind. This application pivot serves as evidence of the company’s design evolution . Developing a deep understanding of users — information such as how and when they’ll use a product — requires research into their preferences, attitudes, and lifestyles. After you have defined who your solution aims to benefit, it’s time to gather evidence-based consumer insights rather than relying on (often wrong) assumptions . This comprehensive human understanding will provide maximum value if market research is leveraged simultaneously. The New York Times aptly wrote that “context dictates the scale of people’s need….. and people’s product experiences depend deeply on the context in which they’re used” . A holistic and analytical approach to the early design stages lays the strongest foundation for later conclusions, such as the identification of your early adopters. Google Glass, for example, disregarded personal privacy by enabling surreptitious filming, despite this being a long-held value of the average buyer. Due to this lack of self-awareness, the novel invention created waves of discomfort among the first users and legislation rapidly banned use in many public spaces. Simple engagement with even those adjacent to the target demographic would have alerted the engineers to this problem, as “the risk of going to market falls to almost zero because entrepreneurs can test ideas before scaling up and tweak the designs in response to feedback from buyers” . Admittedly, it can be challenging for the consumer electronics industry to test products without revealing any pertinent information, as marketing often relies on a surprise factor. However, it is unreasonable to assume that values so central to a product’s success could not be identified during the customer discovery phase. Novel technologies are unlikely choices for mass production, unless a leading brand’s reputation and loyalty give it the privilege of taking on the financial risk. Thus, it is essential to prioritize limited resources for the acquisition of customers who are most likely to purchase the product, to support expansion into further markets. One recommendation to this effect is to first target “countries where consumers are willing to pay the highest price” . It may be the case that there are no potential customers for the current prototype but it must be remembered that “hearing opposing opinions can be painful — but not as painful as launching a product that’s not right for the market or has no market at all” .
“The key learning from failed products, like Google Glass, is the immeasurable benefit to engaging with the target demographic at all stages of the design cycle.”Incorporating the resultant feedback ensures the project’s scope is reflective of expressed pain points and that iterations make valuable changes that better product-market fit. Then, the product delivers to consumers, by solving their challenges, and to companies, by generating predictable revenue. This continuous engagement aims to align the goals of a product’s development and its future value. The explicit path to ensure all aforementioned criteria are accounted for differs based on the specific product and context. A sample, iterative development cycle to prevent product failure is shown in Figure 3. In the end, creatives can choose to either design in isolation from their product’s intended users and markets or to fully integrate them, their values, and feedback into the entire design cycle. Both scenarios will face the same reality of battling out the competition, justifying their value over previous versions, and convincing the world that they exceed expectations on launch day. It’s up to you to decide how much you want to be sure of your success.
References All Together Now. The Economist. (2012, April 21). Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/special-report/2012/04/21/all-together-now  Bilton, N. (2015, February 4). Why Google Glass Broke. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/style/why-google-glass-broke.html  Buffoni, A., Angelis, A. de, Gruntges, V., & Krieg, A. (2021, March 31). How to make sure your next product or service launch drives growth. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-insights/how-to-make-sure-your-next-product-or-service-launch-drives-growth  European Innovation Adoption Behaviour. European Journal of Innovation Management. Retrieved from https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/EJIM-01-2016-0003/full/html  Google. (2015). CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/opinion/pease-google-glass-what-went-wrong/index.html.  Jong, J. P. J. de, Gillert, N. L., & Stock, R. M. (2018, January 10). First adoption of consumer innovations: Exploring market failure and alleviating factors. Research Policy. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733318300040  Lifewire. (2019). 97 Getty Images. 6 Ways to Save Money When Buying a Computer. Retrieved from https://www.lifewire.com/seven-ways-to-save-money-on-a-computer-832356.  Pichlak, M. (2015, December 1). The innovation adoption process: A multidimensional approach: Journal of Management & Organization. Cambridge Core. Retrieved September 25, 2022, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-management-and-organization/article/innovation-adoption-process-a-multidimensional-approach/57C58BBA38794B3C215BEB9AE4F5A266  Schneider, J., & Hall, J. (2021, August 27). Why Most Product Launches Fail. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/04/why-most-product-launches-fail  Sheppard, N. (2011, July 7). How to design a hot product. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://archive.nytimes.com/pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/how-to-design-a-hot-product/?searchResultPosition=1  Person. (2022, June 8). Framework for Innovation: Design Council’s evolved Double Diamond. Design Council. Retrieved from https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/our-work/skills-learning/tools-frameworks/framework-for-innovation-design-councils-evolved-double-diamond/  Dam, R. F., & Siang, T. Y. (n.d.). 10 insightful Design Thinking Frameworks: A Quick Overview. The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/design-thinking-a-quick-overview Connect with Liberty. Edited by Mary Tran.
Op-ed: Preventing product failure by involving the consumer perspective was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.