We are all collaborative now

First Published by Blueprint, September 2017
Associated Categories Design Tags: ,

When suppliers and consumers use IT to ‘co-design’ new products and services, does that really represent democracy and empowerment?

We all know the story. In 2002, Adidas launched mi Adidas, introducing PC-based sales kiosks in stores to scan customers’ feet and allow them to choose colours, materials and their own embroidered monogram on shoes. During the 2006 World Cup, Nike similarly offered consumers the chance to design their own trainers. In 2010, Philips announced the opening of its first HealthSuite Labs ‘co-creation centre’ at Eindhoven, the Netherlands; it puts together healthcare directors, general practitioners, clinical specialists, IT people and designers to work with patients on ‘integrated care solutions to enhance self-management and continuity of care for patients’. Today, no less a trophy than the Miss World Philippines crown will be designed with the help of Megan Young, Miss World 2013 (no, me neither); and in Vietnam, the Norwegian architect Alexander E Furunes held an exhibition in Hanoi in July to discuss how co-design had developed our old friend, ‘sustainable communities’, in India, China, the Philippines and the Vietnamese provincial capital Hà Giang, near the Chinese border.

Nobody can just dismiss collaboration between designers and ‘users’, also known as human beings. I used to tell clients to do it when I was at the designers Fitch, 30 years ago. But now I have my doubts – even though tomorrow’s IT will certainly make it even easier, and the realities of corporate life and the world economy will make it more fashionable.

Of course it will make sense to involve consumers, and indeed B2B purchasers, in the design of products, for both groups will know things that the manufacturer may not. Indeed as early as 1986, MIT’s Eric von Hippel famously proposed the idea of lead users – special kinds of customers possessed of tomorrow’s needs today, and thus able to offer not just valuable insights into those needs, but also prototype solutions for meeting them.

Thirty years later, a firm such as Rolls Royce is certainly a lead user. It makes collaboration over component design a key part of its management of suppliers in civilian and military nuclear projects.

In the context of nuclear work, and in its aerospace activities, Rolls’ emphasis on collaboration to reduce risk, and also cost, is understandable. But beyond Rolls Royce, too much of emphasis on customer input to cut risks may slow up genuine innovation. After all, it still looks as if innovators at Apple and Google don’t much collaborate with customers now, and don’t look like they will in years to come.

Companies’ motives for collaboration will certainly deserve scrutiny. Oddly enough, retail banks may give us a lesson about the future here. Already banks listen to clients and test innovations with them, either in situ at their local branch, or, as in the case of the British bank first direct, online. But, in future, banks may well use crowd-sourced new product development merely to establish an emotional connection with customers. After all, research into West European retail banks suggests that customers who work with them on new financial products tend to be more satisfied with their bank, more loyal to it, and more ready to endorse it through word of mouth.

That’s all very well. It clearly shows, however, that future collaborations in design may not be about great new products, but about something else: plain old insidious marketing. Or there may be another, just as dubious agenda: use ideas coming from outside the company, because they’ll meet less internal resistance than the same ideas coming from… employees.

Yet, at the level of macroeconomics rather than that of the firm, another argument for collaboration in design is likely to grow. In an influential but bizarre paper published in 2004, the American marketing professors Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch, recasting goods as ‘appliances that provide services’ and all economies as ‘services economies’, portrayed the real source of a product’s value as being defined by and co-created with the consumer, rather than being embedded in its manufacturer’s output. Well: in 2015 services, as distinct from industry and agriculture, accounted for no less than 69 per cent of world GDP – and the figure keeps on rising. That would seem to vindicate Vargo and Lusch, and the idea that customers are not simply passive objects, to be sold goods to, but active participants in innovation.

It’s true that the IT in products now allows not just software upgrades, but also, by detecting patterns of use, customised services to be sold around them. But is that the same as the customer consciously redesigning and improving those goods and accompanying services? And if I’m to go under the surgeon’s knife, do I really want and do I have the professional expertise to redesign that knife?

Founded in 2005, the journal CoDesign often holds up collaboration in design as fundamentally more democratic than what has gone before. But over the next decade, when there will doubtless be fierce clashes over just what democracy means, we can expect many people to ask just how credible the claims made for collaborative design really are.

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