Smart Product Design for Next-Generation Gadgets

Leading up to the announcement of the Innovation by Design Award winners, the October issue of Fast Company focused on the impact and importance of design, beginning with an article by Cliff Kuang called “Good Design is Good Business.”

The title of Kuang’s article comes from a speech given by IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr. to Wharton students in 1973. Kuang is quick to note that “[back] then, design was marketing by another name. The design and business symbiosis that Watson was advocating at the time was more prophecy than reality.”

But things are changing, and, Kuang contends, we’re now seeing the wisdom in Watson’s words.

Leading companies—from Braun to Boeing and IBM to Microsoft—are beginning to reshape the way they understand and develop products, putting design innovation first, and changing their product development strategy to match.

Whirlpool—featured in the Fast Company design issue—is a perfect example. “We’re changing from being a manufacturing-based company to being a product company,” says Pat Schiavone, vice president of design at Whirlpool. “It’s not just about cost cutting. Why change? Because good design is very profitable.”

Good design is certainly good business, but it goes much deeper that the physical design of a product. Kuang argues that the most successful companies understand that products of the future won’t operate in isolation but rather as “product systems” or “ecosystems.”

With today’s lighting-speed technological advances (think mobile devices) designing a product—no matter how great looking—in a bubble doesn’t work. It’s about understanding and harnessing how those products will work in an ecosystem of other products and technologies. This is only compounded by the rise of discerning consumers who are more conscious about their purchasing decisions.

To differentiate from the pack, manufacturers are taking the time to implement technologies that make their products “smarter” inside and out. For example, Whirlpool’s Connected Appliance Platform allows customers to monitor their household appliances from their smartphones and glean important usage and efficiency data. Consumers will be able to check if their children closed the refrigerator door correctly, as well as see and regulate the cost per cycle of their washing machines, saving money and the environment.

And while consumers will certainly interact in new ways with this next generation of smart products, that product intelligence can be incredibly useful for manufacturers as well.

We’ve all experienced a customer service visit gone wrong: multiple visits, missing parts, disjointed communication – these negative customer experiences can affect brand loyalty and influence later purchasing decisions. Companies like Whirlpool have shown how enterprises can deliver a better experience and drive innovation by leveraging a product’s built-in intelligence and connectivity.

Manufacturers can deepen their understanding of how products perform in the field by recording and analyzing what actually happens to a product when it’s in use. If a certain part is continually responsible for a product failing, this real-time communication between the product and the manufacturer allows the manufacturer to conduct less costly, preventative maintenance while updating the design for the product’s next generation. This cuts down on product downtime and customer service visits, making life easier for the consumer.

Good business in tomorrow’s innovation economy, as described by Kuang and Fast Company, will certainly demand good design, but that design is much more than skin deep. The more a manufacturer understands about a products’ design— its physical parts and software components—and their products’ performance in the “product ecosystem,” the better they will be able to service existing products and adapt the designs of the products of tomorrow.

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