How does Britain stand in these matters? An excellent paper by Dr Tony Roberts, of management consultancy PA, quoted a 1989 finding that only 16% of UK companies see competitive advantage coming from their products. More than double that proportion look to processes to give them the edge, largely because, Roberts said, they are still committed to short-term, low-risk strategies of catching up on their competition.
In Germany and Japan, by contrast, 30% and 40% respectively of companies prefer fixing the product to fixing the process. Moreover, while half of British new product development is spent in redesign, in Japan the in-depth definition of product requirements takes up a full two thirds of the resources fielded. Since, as Roberts pointed out, up to 90% of a product's lifecycle costs are determined in the concept, design and engineering stage, yet conceptual work costs only 5% of these and design/engineering only another 15%, it makes sense to slow up on the user-centred concept and design phase.
Paradoxically, there is no contradiction between this and cutting "time to market". True adherence to budget targets but not to deadlines, Roberts said, cuts the profits associated with a new product by 50 to 90%, while overshooting on budgets but hitting deadlines reduces profits only by 10%. Nevertheless, as he himself observed, though "a large number of design projects in the UK are behind schedule and will finish late ... the solution is to take more time at the front end and not to press on regardless". In sum: worry less about processes and spend less time tweaking things. Instead bother more about what users will really do with the designs that you give them.
(James Woudhuysen is European director of the Exploratory Design Laboratory at Fitch-RS.)