The reorientation of manufacturing means a move from "technology push" to "user pull". Investment in the design of products and a look at what users will do with them is what is necessary, says James Woudhuysen.
"I want the product to look like a little person with a blue face," said Steven Jobs in the days when he was laying down a design specification for Apple. "Any manufacturer today who ignores the emotional, intangible, subjective, soft concerns of product design does so at his peril," said Ford chairman Don Petersen in the days when the Sierra rescued his company from oblivion.
In 1991 those days are long gone; but it is only now that companies are really taking these words seriously. Now the movement has started, however, the reorientation of manufacturing from "technology push" to "user pull" promises to bring the tactile and turbulent world of humanistic design directly into the sedate world of the boardroom.
This much was confirmed at a conference on product design, held recently by the Financial Times and America's Design Management Institute, which fairly brimmed with inspiring examples of "simultaneous engineering" by multidisciplinary teams (designers, ergonomists, engineers, marketing people and so on). The conference's point of departure? The way in which Japan has led the way in linking this technique to the broader anthropology of design users.
As early as 1958 Japanese companies began to build industrial design and human factors departments in earnest. Today about 6% of Japan's industrial R and D goes on design - in contrast to the American figure of less than 0.5 per cent. Ricoh employs 75 designers, Canon 150, Sony and Sharp more than 200 each. Most significantly of all, Matsushita has 700 on the payroll, among whom 30 have simply been charged with watching the behaviour of 100 Japanese families for 10 years. Yamaha, Atari, Nissan and Honda also now engage in similar kinds of sociological tracking. In its results it can prove more textured than those of the most lengthy questionnaire or focus group.
In what promises to be a seminal study, Takahiro Fujimoto, drawing on research which he has performed for five years with Harvard colleague Kim Clark, spelt out just how inadequate the phrase "user friendly" is to describe what Japanese carmakers are now doing. In the United States car market, where choice has grown so much that even a popular vehicle is unlikely to reach a third of the 1.5 million sales that were common there in the 1970s, novelty, performance in particular technologies and price all fail to impress.
CAD-CAM, value engineering and quality function deployment are fine. But if you want a new model to win, you will not only put a strong project co-ordinator in charge to cut "time to market"; you will also make sure that the same person is a concept champion - someone who can create and fight for an over-arching idea based on his or her own team's direct observation of customer trends.
Design aware, if not designers themselves, such individuals do not leave their customer research to the marketing department. They get out there with people and, provided that they are not sued for invasion of privacy (as has happened to Nissan in the US), they LIVE with them - or at the very least, spend enough time talking with them to get under their skin. Christening the heroic orchestrator of all this the "heavyweight product manager", and naming his goal "product integrity", Fujimoto also noted the importance of expressing concepts visually as a means of "infusing" design throughout the product development team.
While Fujimoto's heavyweight product manager was multilingual, Bob Blaich, managing director of Philips corporate industrial design, made a convincing case that successful product development teams should be global in terms of nationality. For example: aimed at 10 to 17 year olds, Philips' new, mysteriously tinted and faintly robotic Discoverer television was the outcome of a tri-continental study culminating in the selection of a design by Philips' Honson Lee, from Hong Kong.