Consumer Idealized Design: Involving Consumers in The Product Development Process
by Susan Ciccantelli and Jason Magidson
A product or service is designed effectively if it provides consumers with
what they want, rather than merely removing what they do not want. But determining
what consumers need or will want is an effort that does not often meet with
success. In fact, suppliers' beliefs about consumers' wants have led to more
product failures than successes. The main reason for this is not hard to understand:
Consumers' needs and desires are elusive because consumers themselves generally
have not consciously formulated what they are or how to fulfill them.
Even when consumers are aware of what they want and are willing to reveal it,
their wants are likely to be conditioned by what is available. And when the
product or service available is basically unsatisfying to them, they are unlikely
to reveal startling new desires or concepts. At best, the typical ways in which
consumers are involved in product design-focus groups, surveys and questionnaires-tend
to elicit mostly information about what they do not want, rather than startling
new insights about what they really want or need. This is due in part to the
fact that people often attempt to provide answers that they think the inquirer
wants, rather than probe for their own preferences.
So the search continues, and product developers continue to seek ways to help
consumers (1) become more aware of what they need or want, and (2) reveal these
wants as accurately as possible. One such way, developed by Russell L. Ackoff,
is a process called Consumer Idealized Design (Consumer Design).
Consumer Idealized Design
Consumer design involves actual or potential consumers in an unconstrained
design of their ideal product or service.
In consumer design, participants are told not to be concerned with the feasibility
of the designs they create, only with their desirability. They are also encouraged
to specify ways in which the product might be made flexible enough to accommodate
changes in consumers' needs. In proposing the design, consumer participants
are free of all constraints except two:
(1) The product or service cannot involve any technology that does not currently
For example, a participant could say that she wants publicly available drive-it-yourself
taxis that are coin-operated, because the technology exists to construct them.
On the other hand, she cannot say that she wants an automobile that can run
on water, since this is not possible using current (proven) technology.
In some cases, knowing whether technology exists to realize consumers' designs
may be difficult to assess. However, we have found that the collective knowledge
of a group is generally sufficient to make decisions regarding the inclusion
of uncertain technological capabilities. The product or service must conform
to the law. This constraint extends to any rules or regulations imposed by the
government that limit the use of the product or service. For example, one cannot
design an automobile that emits a poisonous gas.
Consumer design starts from the ground up and ignores feasibility in the early
stages of the design process. This is because it is based on the belief that
the principal obstruction to creativity is a preoccupation with feasibility,
a condition that is usually associated with self-imposed (rather than actual)
Consumer design assumes that, given the proper tools and facilitation, average
consumers are often best equipped to design-from a functional standpoint-those
products and services that are required for situations with which they have
become familiar. It is this input from consumers early on in the product development
process that differentiates consumer design sessions from traditional focus
groups and surveys.
How Consumer Design Works
Consumer design is similar to a focus group in some general ways:
A small group is selected from a segment of the market that the product developer
has chosen to target; The process takes place in a large conference room; and
the event can either be taped or viewed behind one-way mirrors. At this point,
the similarities end. Unlike focus groups, which are usually completed in less
than 3 hours, consumer design sessions generally require an entire day. Participants
are usually not required to prepare in any way for the session. However, discussion
by the client organization should provide an accurate description of the characteristics
of ideal participants. It may be desirable to have prospective participants
complete a questionnaire before the session, to ensure that participants meet
the client's profile of the ideal consumer of their forthcoming product or service.
Assisted by a facilitator -someone who guides but does not provide content
to the session - the participants are asked to imagine that an existing product
or service with which they are familiar was destroyed overnight, and that they
are going to have the opportunity to create something totally new in its place.
They then engage in a brainstorming session to prepare a basic list of specifications
for the ideal product or service to be designed. Specifications can include
any feature desired by the participants, no matter how outrageous, as well as
standard characteristics such as color, weight, function, size, speed, shape,
availability, cost, and so on.
The facilitator records all suggestions and proposals on a large flip-chart
so that everyone present can see them. At this stage, all specifications are
recorded, even those that may be in conflict with each other. The entire group
then debates the merits of each point raised and finally arrives at some decisions
regarding the ideal. In sessions of over 6 people, participants then break into
smaller groups to plan out designs which will incorporate as many of the specifications
as possible. This generally takes between one and two hours. The entire group
is then reassembled to present their designs and discuss the advantages and
disadvantages of each. After this discussion, the smaller groups re-convene
to refine and change their designs, incorporating the ideas presented by the
other group(s) as desired. This process is repeated as many times as possible
until the end of the day, with the goal being to arrive at one design that incorporates
all of the participants' idealizations.
If a facilitator is skillful, it seldom takes more than three iterations to
reach a consensus on a consumer idealized design (i.e., all participants feel
the end product is better than anything else currently available). In our experience,
several skills contribute to success. First, if the participants refer to or
complain about existing products or services, the facilitator should immediately
break in and remind the group that for the purposes of this session these no
longer exist and they should stay focused on the objective of designing what
they would like if they could have anything they wanted. Second, when disagreements
arise, the facilitator can handle them in several ways. In some cases, the facilitator
can ask the group to assess the importance of the disagreement and consider
whether they should set it aside for discussion later, so that progress can
be made in other areas. Where agreement cannot be reached, the facilitator should
suggest an experiment or other research by which the better approach can be
determined in practice (e.g., manufacture two types of roofing materials that
consumers disagree on, offer them for sale, and see whether one sells better
than the other). This is a resolution approach to which people often unanimously
A third skill that contributes to a successful design effort is remembering
to probe, when design specifications are contributed, by asking the question
"Why?" This can help to eliminate redundancy in the final design, but, more
importantly, it forces the designers to articulate desires which are often not
known to producers.
Finally, facilitators of a successful design effort should guide participants
toward their ideal and away from what they perceive as obstructions. In this
respect, the objection which is most often raised in the group design effort
Interactive Design vs. Reactive "Focus"
A consumer design session is characterized by at least three features which
distinguish it from a focus group.
(1) It requires innovation and interaction from participants.
(2) It is task-oriented, competitive and consensus-generating.
(3) It requires the articulation and design of the group's notion of the ideal
in a designated product or service category.
Focus groups generally begin and end with the product developers' concept
for a new or improved product or service. Conversely, a consumer design session
begins with a blank slate. When consumer design is successful, the end result
is a design that represents not only previously unarticulated needs and wants
of the participants, but a record for the product developer of the underlying
reasons for those design decisions.
For example, in a design of the ideal men's clothing store, participants-who
had been selected from the store owner's targeted customer group-arranged different
articles of similar types of clothing by size, rather than by type. In their
scheme, all available styles of suit jackets, sport jackets, vests, shirts,
and outerwear for the upper body were grouped together by size. The reason given
was that the consumer designers didn't like hunting all over the store to retrieve
these different articles. Armed with this new understanding of their preferred
customer group, the store's owners' identified alternate ways to address this
need: having a salesperson select the desired articles in the appropriate sizes
for VIP customers, and maintaining records of customers' clothing and size requirements.
Task-Orientation, Competition, and Consensus
As anyone who has led or participated in a focus group knows, these groups
can easily degenerate into "beef sessions." In some cases the group will become
polarized, or launch an all-out attack upon the product idea being introduced.
A consumer design session eliminates this possibility since the group is itself
responsible for producing answers to the challenge posed by a particular product
or service need.
For example, in the design of an ideal service station, one group designed
a full-service facility while another wanted a drive-up geared to speed and
convenience. Their solution: a fast, fully automated, express lane which could
either be conveniently located near the exit of a full-service station, or placed
in a smaller location as stand-alone (or "micro-) station. These units would
utilize a credit or debit card and personal ID code, thereby eliminating the
need to leave the pump area. They would also provide an option similar to an
automated teller machine's "Fast Cash" service, and allow consumers to select
$2, $5, $10 or $20 worth of gas with a single entry.
The "combination design" was further refined by the group at large to be adapted
for both urban and highway uses.
Even in those cases in which consensus is not reached, information is revealed
in disagreements that may be useful to the product or service provider. Generally
such situations suggest the desirability of providing options, or conducting
further research to determine what is preferred by the majority of a target
market. Repeated attempts to meet all of the group members' desired specifications
often raise new questions and issues, requiring revamped decisions and subsequent
discussion. In addition, consensus provides the consumer design process with
direction; it also-in conjunction with the time constraint-pushes participants
to come up with imaginative solutions.
Designing the Ideal
Consumer design offers participants a chance to become the designer. As such
is places them in a position of power, if only temporarily and hypothetically.
At the same time, they are faced with the challenge of getting to the heart
of what it is that they really want. For example, the customers of an urban
neighborhood grocery store and outdoor cafe were quick to trade off the occasional
noisiness of people and music during the summer months for the security provided
along the block by the store's late-night activity and lighting.
A producer's notion of the ideal is generally very different from his customer's.
In the case of the new software product (described below), consumer participants'
unanimously rejected the (sponsors') idea of a hand-held tracking device. In
addition, prior to this, the group had agreed that the best system of all would
involve no software or hardware at all, just a trusted friend or relative who
would take all responsibility for tracking household expenses. This ideal set
the priorities in the minds of the sponsor: the product would need to be simple,
straightforward and require as little interaction with technology as possible.
Consumer design is similar to focus groups in that it does not attempt to
deliver finished product designs. But unlike focus groups, the output of consumer
design sessions is treated as a point of departure for the remainder of the
product development process. This is because effective consumer designs should
give product and service providers information about what consumers want, and,
even more importantly, they should increase their understanding of why they
want what they want.
Consumer Design Outcomes
Consumer design sessions have been conducted for a wide variety of businesses:
a major oil company; a major manufacturer of roofing materials; a large supermarket
chain; neighborhood grocery stores; a men's clothing retail chain; a computer
software company; insurance and banking companies; health care facilities; and
national food producers. Three of these experiences are are summarized here.
The Ideal Roof
A major producer and marketer of asphalt roofing shingles had a larger line
of roofing materials than its major competitor, but one of the competitor's
products dominated the market. Previous efforts to cut into the competitor's
market share had met with little or no success. Consumer Design was selected
as a way to explore potential new products that could take some of the dominant
One of the first facts recognized was that there are many participants in
the decision to buy a particular style of roofing shingle: homeowners, architects,
roofing contractors, material distributors and retailers. But the answer to
the question "Who makes the buying decision?" is important only if the different
participants have different preferences. With this in mind the company set out
to determine which type of roof designs and styles each type of participant
To accomplish this, small groups of each type of buyer were brought to a specially
prepared room where they were asked to design their notion of the ideal roof.
They worked on 3' x 4' wood panels, and used a wide variety of components, textures,
colors, and so on. Components were prepared in such a way that the designs need
not resemble any existing type of roofing. Each participant prepared several
designs. When each group had completed its design, they were asked to review
each others' creations, those of previous groups, and also a selection of roofs
available on the market at that time.
The effort produced a total of 120 different designs, prepared by 9 different
groups over the course of several weeks. The designs were analyzed and categorized
according to 20 variables. The findings deemed most useful by the client were
-Asphalt roofing materials do not have to be made to resemble slate, wood shingles,
or clay tiles to be considered attractive.
- The narrow cut-outs-spaces that separate tabs on conventional shingles-are
- Homeowners showed a preference for roofing that appears 3-dimensional.
- All participant groups except roofing contractors showed a preference for
strong patterning and regularity. The contractors find such designs difficult
- In general, homeowners' and architects' designs were much more exotic than
the conventional designs produced by contractors who install roofs and material
distributors who sell roofing products.
Several of the designs produced by customers and the analysis were subsequently
used to modify the client's product line.
The Ideal Service Station
Two groups of consumers-one composed entirely of men and the other of women-were
recruited to design the ideal service station. In general, both groups revealed
a desire for more choices: a variety of service facilities, product options,
and auxiliary services. The groups acknowledged early on in the process that
auto service needs varied in a number of ways: long or short trips; planned
versus unplanned service; an urban or a highway setting; and the desire for
personalized or completely automated service. Two representatives of the sponsoring
organization (a major oil company) took part incognito in two day-long sessions.
Some interesting differences emerged between the final designs produced by
the two groups. Women wanted the station to be a source of reliable, straightforward
information covering all elements of what they referred to as "the total driving
experience." This included background, training, and references for their car
mechanics; information about fuel sources and composition; and information about
insurance and maintenance options. They also expected businesses to show some
concern for the local community. Finally, women's designs addressed the special
needs of children and the handicapped by including things such as changing tables
in restrooms and wheelchair access.
Both men and women redesigned the pumps and nozzles to make them easier use
and store. Other design features common to both were:
- a selection of major brands available at every pump
- a fast, fully automated express lane which could be conveniently located and
adapted either as a stand-alone "micro-station" or as part of the super station
design for both urban and highway use;
- a commuter lot/station with "disposable" cars
- an emphasis on service-respect for and attention to the customer ("like McDonald's")
- a system for servicing cars when they're not being used.
Both groups produced their own detailed drawings of what the stations would
look like, including landscaping, lighting, and clearly marked approaches and
The Ideal Financial Software Product
Two sessions, involving different groups of people, were held to have participants
design financial-planning software for household use. The goal was a new product
that would appeal to a market segment different from the company's existing
(successful) financial-planning software product. The existing product had its
largest market among persons with a relatively high level of financial sophistication.
The new product was intended to cultivate a new, less sophisticated customer
base, many of whom would then "graduate" to become users of the existing product.
Participants were asked to supply information about themselves, including
household income and estimated home value. They were also asked to rate themselves
on a scale of 1 to 10 in two areas: (1) their knowledge and understanding of
investments; and (2) the amount of control they felt they had over their money.
In the first session, participants were asked to imagine an ideal setup which
would help them track their personal finances. At this point, the sponsors had
a preconceived notion of the new product which incorporated a small, hand-held
device (similar to a pocket calculator) for tracking daily expenditures. This
device would then plug into a personal computer, where a modular system of software
programs would organize, integrate, and analyze the data. They participated
in this first session incognito.
What happened during the first session caused the sponsors to completely revise
their ideas. Participants revealed that they would like better organization
and control of their finances, but that they were unwilling to use a hand-held
tracking device, no matter how small or "cute." They also didn't want any of
the "extra work" required to organize their finances. Instead, they wanted a
simplified "snapshot" of their total financial situation, as well as graphic
representations delineating what they spent in certain categories. Other specifications
were that the proposed system include some type of imposed discipline on their
spending, and the ability to see progress toward stated financial goals.
The first session convinced the sponsors that the product would have to be
aimed at households and individuals who regularly experience cash-flow problems.
To design software aimed at such a group, a second session was organized with
a different set of participants. This group produced a complete set of requirements
for the new product. These included:
- ease of use
- graphics to show what today's dollars today will be worth at retirement
- savings plans for acquiring major purchases
- tax implications
- and a variety of other consumer information sources, such as credit card rates,
travel options, vacation packages, and housing costs in different parts of the
In addition, extensive specifications were provided for system outputs, such
as monthly, quarterly and annual (printed) reports; balance-sheets, household
budgets, and a long-term "snapshots." Participants decided that the system should
be geared to low-end hardware (costing under $1000), and compatible with existing
popular word-processing and spreadsheet programs. Such a package, they said,
should assist individuals who purchased it by "demystifying the chaotic blur"
of financial imperatives and options. Finally, the participants said that they
would pay between $40 and $60 for the product.
Many in upper- and middle-management know that in today's complex industrial
relationships, with many middlemen, organizations can be very distanced from
their ultimate consumers, and they realize that this distance makes it easy
to miss the big picture. Involving consumers in designing products and services
can put the organization back in touch with its consumers and infuse fresh ideas.
However, customer involvement often has not produced the expected results.
Six principles have come out of examination of successful and failed efforts.
Companies should: get consumers involved in product and service development
as early as possible and at all subsequent stages, encourage consumers to focus
on what is wanted rather than what is not wanted. encourage consumers to think
beyond what is currently available by focusing on what they would like ideally
(starting from a clean slate), get consumers to go beyond simply telling what
they would like by involving them in designing the product or service, encourage
consumers not to worry about likelihood of implementation (feasibility) but
to be concerned with desirability, and probe for the reasons why consumers want
what they want.
We have discussed how consumer idealized design has helped a number of companies
in a variety of industries improve performance by following the above principles.
Even companies that felt confident in their existing marketing strategy and
tried consumer idealized design have often been surprised at how much they learned,
how it affected their beliefs and practices, and how this led to improved performance.
In a world where successful performance is increasingly a moving target, companies
would be wise to become partners with their consumers in shaping it and pursuing