“Design-Driven Innovation”–the powerful advantage that comes from changing the meaning of a product

One of the best books of the year is undoubtedly “Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean,” by Roberto Verganti. In it Verganti, a favorite of this blog, attacks one of the central mysteries of innovation–how can a company successfully create a product that is a radical break from the past, and which shows the way to a new future?

We’ve seen these products at work. The mobile phone is one. The personal computer is another. We know that you can’t survey users to determine what these products will look like or what they should do. So how to create them (apart from cloning Steve Jobs, who seems to have a knack for the radical innovation)?

Most companies punt on this question and are satisfied to extend existing products into adjacent spaces, fix latent customer pain points, etc. These are fine tactics, but with the ease of imitating product features and the speed with which information and intelligence flows, extension is a less and less stable platform for growth (arguably, it is an unhealthy and unproductive basis for business – in Umair Haque’s term, “thin value“).

Besides, as Verganti points out, radical changes in meaning yield longer product life cycles and more profitability.

So what’s the key to achieving this sort of innovation? Verganti writes that it is changing the meaning inherent in the product. The Wii changed the meaning of gaming from “passive immersion in a virtual world for young adults” to “active physical entertainment for everyone” (p.65). iPod/iTunes changed the meaning of a digital music player from a storage medium to a seamless platform for finding, buying, organizing, transporting and listening to music. The iPhone (not specifically discussed in the book) changed the meaning of a mobile phone from a voice device, with a few data applications attached, to a platform where data applications are the central focus of the product. The phone part is almost an afterthought! (I’ve noticed that iPhone customers are very tolerant of poor voice quality and dropped calls–deficiencies that would doom a plain mobile phone.)

In all the above cases, the changes of meaning opened up entire new markets, created hard-to-duplicate ecosystems and caused competitors to spend time and resources figuring out what the changes meant and how/whether to follow.

So how would a company create a new meaning for a product or market segment? That will have to wait for another post.

Related postsi:
Roberto Verganti podcast
How to improve innovation in rapidly-changing markets
An alternate approach to innovation: the Lombardy Design cluster
A quick skim covering innovation, marketing and complexity

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