Open-source software and services like Linux, Firefox Web browser and Wikipedia are very famous. These are some well known examples of product development with the help of the community. This is a phenomenon that started purely as a community effort backed by a foundation or a non-profit organization. But the massive effect this has had over the past years made even the corporations with big bets on IP involve the customers in mass customization of their products. And this is not limited to high tech products anymore, even conventional products like t-shirts and shoes are getting co-designed by the customers. The open innovation wave is touching everything from food-flavors to music systems to video games.
Let’s skim through a few examples to add value to what we are talking here. Slim devices is one of the favorites in open innovation. Slim devices has a community of music enthusiasts who help the small staff of in-house designers give shape to their next music player. The community is so strongly knit that sometimes its even hard to tell who is an outsider and who is a company employee. Some top contributors in the community have complete access to the designs and source of the Slim’s future releases.
Big names in the footwear industry are asking customers to help them design shoes. Customers can evaluate new designs, give feedback or even create totally new designs in a CEC-made-shoe project launched by the European Confederation of footwear industry. Famous Canadian shoe designer John Fluevog has also been soliciting ideas from the customers. Brand enthusiasts are encouraged to submit their own sketches for all kinds of shoes including leather boots, high-heeled dress shoes and sneakers. The submissions are posted on the company website and customers discuss and vote for the design leading to the best ones being manufactured by the company.
Start-ups like Zazzle.com are leading to an even more innovative open source development. Zazzle customizes all kind of merchandise for the customers. Customers can contribute their own designs at Zazzle or pick from one of the designs available in there. If other customers choose to get mechandize designed by a contributor, the contributor gets loyalty from the site. Zazzle is creating a massive community of designers who are using it as a platform to sell their design and add an additional avenue to their business.
Even food-flavors are customized to suite the customers’ taste. Frito-Lay customizes the taste of their chips in each geography based on the feedback from the customers. Same is the story with burgers at McDonald’s. So the taste of chips and burgers you will get in US will be considerably different when compared with the ones in Europe or Asia.
Involving customers in designing products is a real blessing for marketing. Marketing department in a company acts like the voice of the customers. They are the one who make sure customer requirements are fulfilled and the product has all they need. By involving customers in co-designing the products, the company is easing the job of the marketers. When customers call the shots, they generate an affinity with the company. This makes the task of marketing organization even easier because they get advocates in the form of these customers.
Product development also benefits a lot from customer involvement. They are able to tap in a lot of unexplored talent for almost negligible cost. In order to make sure there is good customer involvement, the company will have to create a good community experience and make the customer feel that they are welcome. The important thing to remember is that the company is in a way doing marketing and advertising all throughout the product development.
In a nutshell, I think involving customers in designing the products and services is like a win-win scenario for everyone. The customers get what they want and the company gets a lot of assistance in their marketing and product development. George Costanza claims that there can be no better break-off excuse than his invention – “It’s not you, it’s me”. In a (kind-of) similar fashion (though I don’t claim it as my invention :-)), I think there can be no better product out there than the one co-designed by its customers with the company stating loud and clear – “It’s not us, it’s you”!