Does Involving Customers in Design Make Your Company Seem Less Innovative?


As someone who once worked for Ford Motor Company, I have heard the expression “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horse” quite a bit. The idea behind the expression is that truly innovative products must be beyond the scope of normal customer experience. By this logic, therefore, if one were to involve customers in the design process, then one would not get truly innovative products. Do customers utilize the same logic when assessing the innovativeness of a company?

Involving customers in the design process has become a fairly popular technique in many companies. The touted advantages are products that better suit customers and a new pipeline of ideas derived from the lived experiences of customers. The question of what impact these processes have on brand perception, however, have not been widely addressed.  

In an issue of the Journal of Marketing, scholars Martin Schreier, Christoph Fuchs, & Darren W. Dahl tested this aspect of user-led design. Specifically, they surveyed customers about how company’s user-led design activities affected customers’ perception of a company’s ability to innovate. Contrary to the “Faster Horse” thesis, their study actually demonstrated that user-led design actually improves customers’ perceptions of a company’s innovation capabilities. Moreover, these perception shifts are strong enough to augment customer purchase intent, increase willingness to pay and willingness to recommend. Factors that can affect the perception include the number of customers that participate and the diversity of the participants background.

Involving customers in the product design and innovation process therefore not only makes sense in crafting more user-centered designs, it also makes sense in terms of brand management. Companies that utilize user-led design not only are innovative, but seem more so to customers.

Greg VanderPol