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Why it’s not always best to listen to your customers

RSM Rotterdam School of Management
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Ignoring your customers can lead to more successful products. It is not always a good idea for companies to listen to their customers when designing products – according to new research from RSM Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University.

Researchers looked into 132 recent innovation projects and found that including customers in the design process was only a good idea when developing radical innovations designed explicitly around functionality. Projects focussed on aesthetics, emotional experiences or those tailored to the identity of the user were more successful when customers were not involved in idea generation.

Developing products in cooperation with customers is a very fashionable practice in product design currently”, says lead researcher Jan Van den Ende. “However, studies have yet to show conclusively when this is a good idea, and when it is not. The results of our study showed that involving customers in product development led to more market success for radical innovations that were utilitarian. But ‘Hedonic’ innovations actually suffered in terms of success when the customer was involved.”

The research found that utilitarian products were better suited to customer cooperation because every step of the design process for such projects requires the company to make decisions on the technical aspects of the product. The customer plays an important role in idea generation and selection, with the company finalising the details.The success of ‘hedonic’ products, on the other hand, is generally the result of a complex social process – meaning it is difficult for customers to add value at the design stage. The reception of hedonic innovations is a complicated social process – who is rooting for this product? Who hates it? What does social media say? What do expert reviewers say? Also – they often rely on an element of surprise. Asking customers how they’d like to be surprised does not lead to useful answers.

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