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Jonathan Cagan and Craig M. Vogel


by Bruce Nussbaum, Editorial Page Editor and Design Editor, BusinessWeek

Design has come to play a critical role in our economic lives. For many decades Corporate America neglected design, treating style as superficial, fashion as transitory. Design was felt to be last-minute gloss to be applied after the real product development was done. No longer. Design is fast becoming a key corporate asset, essential to establishing and extending brands, transforming new technologies into usable products, and bridging company identities and customer loyalties. CEOs and managers are scrambling to learn how to use it to maximize their sales and profits. Most believe that design is a business tool, a way of gaining advantage in the marketplace for products and services. That’s true but a few chief executives understand that design is much more—it’s a strategy, a business behavior, a way to bring together the very best a corporation has to offer and focus it directly on the consumer. Design increases the odds of winning in the global marketplace.

For the past decade, I have been fortunate in having BusinessWeek embrace this point of view. Its coverage is distinct from other “design” magazines in that it focuses on design as a powerful core competency for Corporate America. The dozens and dozens of articles that I’ve written as the design editor of BusinessWeek are all basically stories about how companies use design as part of their overall business strategies or how design firms develop products that bust open new markets or extend brands. I’ve tried to demystify the process of design by describing how some of the best product designers actually work. Jonathan Cagan and Craig M. Vogel have the same goals in their book, Creating Breakthrough Products. They show readers how to peel back the mystery of design to reveal how it actually works. They describe how companies can harness design to buttress their bottom line. And they provide simple methods for achieving the best design.

This is especially important in a period of fast technological change such as the one we are in now. When new technologies throw up a multitude of options and possibilities, design can filter them, fitting them appropriately to what people actually want and need. Really good design operations integrate the engineering of functions and features as well as the marketing goals of brand identity and brand extension. Teaming product designers with engineers and marketing people is often the key to quick success.

When companies rely on the new technologies themselves to attract consumers, they often stumble. They make the mistake of thinking that more functions translate into better products, when often the very opposite is true. We all remember the first personal digital assistant, the Apple Newton, which had the ability to do all kinds of things, none of them, it turned out, all that well. People wanted simplicity in their PDAs and had to wait years for Palm to offer it to them.

Indeed, there is no better example of the bottom-line power of design than the creation of the breakthrough Palm. Three programmers developed handwriting software that organized data. They were smart enough to learn from the Newton fiasco and kept their product very simple—datebook, address book, memo pad, and to-do list, plus a very simple hot-synch with the PC. They then brought in a savvy West Coast design firm, Palo Alto Design Group, which designed an amazingly easy-to-use form. But Palo Alto Design Group went even further. It arranged for the tooling and manufacturing to take place in Asia. The whole development cycle took less than a year. From the writing of the software to the actual Palm being sold in electronics stores took a mere 12 months. That’s the power of design. So powerful, in fact, that Palo Alto Design Group was recently bought by Flextronics, one of the largest manufacturers in the world.

And that is precisely the message from Creating Breakthrough Products: Innovation From Product Planning to Program Approval. Jonathan Cagan and Craig M. Vogel at Carnegie Mellon University show the way to designing such breakthrough products and services as the OXO GoodGrips, the Motorola Talkabout, the Crown Wave, and the Starbucks coffee experience. In fact, there are a whole slew of case studies in the book, including the Black & Decker SnakeLight, the Herman Miller Aeron Chair and the Apple iMac. These are products we love, products we lust after.

But Cagan and Vogel go beyond just presenting detailed examinations of the best products. They offer up a best practices approach to design, a systematic approach to creating innovative, brand-enhancing products. It is a guidebook that corporations, large and small, can follow. It’s a methodology that everyone involved in product development can use, be they engineers, marketeers, manufacturing people, sales people, or industrial designers. And it’s step by step, focusing on user-driven, not just technology-driven development, integrating and balancing teams and disciplines, shaping the process and raising the odds of success in the marketplace. And their advice is right on: “If a product does not connect with the values of a customer, it will fail.” It’s not just the utility of a product that’s important. It’s the emotional component—the experience people have with it and the values they want expressed by it—that’s key.

To guide the way, Cagan and Vogel have developed a number of valuable models and useful methodologies. They are very helpful. Take the SET factors. To really understand consumer trends and catch the moment when opportunities present themselves, product developers need a systematic approach. Hence SET—Social trends, Economic forces and Technological advances. Follow them and companies can get to the edge of the new in society. And once they understand the SET factors of their marketplace, they can picture the Product Opportunity Gap (POG) that makes itself available. With the OXO potato peeler, determining the SET factors involved a growing number of aging boomers with arthritic hands, an unwillingness to be stigmatized, a willingness to spend more on kitchen utensils than their parents, and an openness to new materials and shapes. Enter Sam Farber and Smart Design and you have the building of one of the most successful new brands in recent history. Ergonomically sound tools for the kitchen were extended to the garden, the car, and on and on. Brilliant. The book shows how they did it, why they did it, and how others can follow.

There is tremendous detail in Creating Breakthrough Products for the product development specialists. On one level, the entire book is aimed at them. It provides a path down which companies can enter to increase their chances of success in launching new products. But anyone interested in the design of everyday things in our lives would appreciate this book. It shows how good design can be made and why there is no longer any excuse for not having it in all the things we love to use.—Bruce Nussbaum