Choice is a fine thing, and it is fair to say that consumers have never been presented with a more enviable array of technological products than at present. However, while they may be as high-performance and reliable as one another they do not necessarily look the same.
As a result, should firms not start to take even more seriously the aesthetic appeal of their respective products, as well as such essential factors as user-friendliness, efficiency, recyclability, and ease of distribution? Could it be that it is ultimately "looks that kill"...?
The success of technological products will not always be governed by visual appearance alone – there are very good reasons why some "win" over others on account of also being easier to use, more environmentally-friendly, easier to distribute, and ultimately more efficient. This is a very delicate ball-game for manufacturers and marketeers as they have to decide upon which qualities to hinge their products and how they subsequently promote them. What may tip the balance is the look of the product, meaning how novel it appears to consumers and, above all, how consumers will respond not just to their own perceived notion of novelty but also the reality of innovation in relation to their prior knowledge and experience of technological products.
Defining "the new"
One thing is clear within the consumer thought process - functionality is the first choice to be made. However, once the reliable prototype has been established, it is understandable that consumers will then be faced with certain aesthetic options. Some consumers play safe and stick with what they know. Others go actively in search of "the new". To put it in mobile telephone language, some may prefer to move over to swiping whilst others may stay with the tried-and-tested keypad...
Research has dug deeper by discerning between the natural inclination of consumers to look for the latest design ("consumer innovativeness") and the ability to recognise, categorise and thereby evaluate novelty ("design acumen"). The latter does not necessarily constitute an innate thirst for newer-looking products but rather an ability to discern the old from the new. The results in terms of consumer behaviour do not prove the same.
A manufacturing and marketing tightrope
The stakes are high and manufacturers have a lot to take into account, not least the processes that lead to innovative design, utility, manufacturability, design goals and strategy, functionality, reliability, safety, and visual qualities. These final, more superficial (but no less important) factors can range from colour and size, through to shape, not forgetting the resultant qualities that each factor transmits. The size of a product can be perceived in all kinds of ways, from power through to practicality – a miniature notebook computer or mp3 player may not look impressive enough to some consumers, just as it may represent pocket-sized convenience and innovativeness for others.
If this wasn't enough, the company prepared to invest more money in an ultimately more expensive but, at the same time, more attractive and novel design, will then have to decide how to off-set these potential extra costs through marketing and (fingers crossed) improved sales. It is the final, visual aspect that can prove to be the potential deciding factor, and the one that might just make companies prepared to walk the manufacturing and marketing tightrope of the more innovative-looking design.
Is it only about perception?
Recent studies have focussed in on the example of an in-house hub designed to provide broadcasts to several television sets within the same household, but without recourse to extra wiring, antennae etc. Two designs of differing innovativeness were presented to a sample of UK-based consumers. These same tests could, of course, have been applied to smartphones that do or do not bend in the pocket (to quote a recent, much-covered example), the roaring success of neo-retro design headphones à la Beats versus the now "older-school" earpieces, or tablets that either can or cannot be transformed into laptops by attaching them to adapted keyboards.
One of the keys is in the perception from the consumer angle and to what extent they then translate that interest in novelty into an actual intention to purchase. However, prior knowledge of product design and subsequent sensitivity to what is truly innovative can also have a major impact.
Who puts their hand in their pocket?
These examinations identify two trends, based upon the innovativeness/design acumen distinction mentioned above. Consumer characteristics are proven to have a clear effect on purchase intention – those with an instinct to seek out novelty ("innovators") express a much clearer intention to eventually purchase the newer-looking design. Those with "design acumen" have a much clearer ability to recognise and perceive novelty (as opposed to a natural inclination to follow their gut instinct for more innovative designs regardless) based upon previous purchases or experiences.
By no means does the debate end here – further room for analysis exists, from the social context and background of consumers and the extent to which innovative products are inspired by pre-existing ones, to the fact that some consumers will retain certain, innate design preferences, regardless of how attractive "the latest thing" may be. However, what does emerge from these investigations is that two main behaviours need to be accounted for – the decision to purchase a more innovative-looking product due to a natural inclination to go for the latest craze, or a more considered (and sometimes more conservative) decision, based upon previous experience and expertise.
This article draws inspiration from the paper Consumer Response to Product Form in Technology-Based Industries, written by Yann Truong, Laurence Fort-Rioche, Richard R. Klink, and Gerard A. Athaide, and published in the Product Development & Management Association journal 2014; 31(4).
Yann Truong is an Associate Professor of Strategy & Marketing Department at ESC Rennes School of Business, France. His research interests cover: Aspirational Marketing, the relationship between individuals' aspirations and consumer behaviour; New Media Advertising, developing business models for new media communications; and Innovations Marketing, elaborating strategies for marketing innovative products or services.
Laurence Fort-Rioche is the Associate Dean for Faculty at ESC Rennes Business School, France and also the Marketing Academic Area Coordinator for the school. Her research interests cover design, innovation and new product development, multi-disciplinary teams, time-to-market, and the marketing of high-tech products and services.
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