Design By Consensus

Is social media key to designing the next killer product? At the very least, it might give us some hints about where to go next.

popularity

By Cheryl Ajluni

On Monday, October 12, the National Association of Business Economists (NABE) announced the results of a survey of professional forecasters regarding the economy. Their consensus was clear: the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression has ended. While many Americans still think the country’s economy is in poor shape, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll taken between Oct. 16th and 18th seemed to echo this sentiment—a growing number of Americans think the worst of the recession is over.

For the electronics industry, there also appears to be a bit of good news. According to Gartner, the end-user electronics industry is in the early stages of recovery. The mobile-phone market will likely be the first sector to show sustainable recovery, starting in the first quarter of 2010.

Given the economic turmoil of the last few years, any sort of economic recovery sounds good, but if anyone in the electronics industry believes things will go back to business as usual they may be in for a rude awakening. The rules of engagement have most definitely changed. Nowhere is this more evident than when it involves system engineers charged with developing and designing new electronic products. For them, creating that next killer product now requires more than just a great idea, money and resources for development, the right design tools, and a bit of luck and good timing. It may also require something that many of them have never even considered—social media.

For those engineers who spend more time correctly focused on the nuances of their design tools and their design, as opposed to the intricacies of the Internet and its impact on society, let me take a moment to bring you up to speed. Social media is really exactly what it sounds like—the various forms of media available on the Internet that enable people to be social. That media could be some sort of platform or service, essentially anything that allows people to interact and network (Figure 1).

Prime examples of social media platforms and services include facebook, flickr, Linkedin, MySpace, twitter and YouTube. People commonly use facebook to keep tabs on friends and family. Linkedin offers a way for professionals to stay linked into professional organizations, networks and with other colleagues in their respective fields. MySpace and twitter enable people to share pertinent information and their thoughts on a whole range of topics and interests. YouTube needs no explanation and flickr is primarily for sharing video along with images. Each of these platforms and services, in their own unique way, help define social media. Most are things that engineers have likely come across in their personal lives. Social media has even begun crossing over into the business world for use in customer support and sales and marketing. Perhaps what’s more interesting though is that, when used appropriately, it can also play a critical role in electronic product development.

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Figure 1. Social media encompasses different concepts all related to technology, social interaction and building/providing content such as text, photos or videos. Graphic source.

How exactly can social media aide in product development? Consider a very basic example. Imagine that Joe, a system engineer, wants to design the next great smart phone. Perhaps he has a starting concept in his head and simply wants to refine it, or maybe he just doesn’t quite know where to start. So he checks various blogs to see if there are any complaints/problems or positive comments about functionality in his last smart phone design. He may even go to Linkedin to connect with like-minded professionals to discuss possible features that might be incorporated into the design. Or, he could check out a forum of existing smartphone users to see what they are talking about—do they have any likes or dislikes with their current phones, for example? (Figure 2) Given all this information, Joe is able to get a clearer idea of what existing and potential future customers want. He can then translate these needs into specific, concrete requirements for his design.

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Figure 2. Designers wanting to keep up with consumer’s views/reviews on existing smartphones might access a social media platform like the Smartphone Blast! Forums. This site is the smartphone source for shareware, Visor freeware, reviews, hardware, discussion, and more.

Essentially, by using the information obtained from social media, Joe is able to turn his product development process from an art into a science. It allows everyone involved in the product development to more freely communicate and collaborate, not just internally but with customers and suppliers. It also enables Joe to find out information about customer’s changing requirements that he can use to very quickly revise next product variants in an existing line of products.

Such functionality may prove critical for system designers, especially considering that a lot has changed since the recession began. As Klaus Rinnen, managing vice president at Gartner’s semiconductor manufacturing group, points out, “The damage from the current industry recession will be felt for a long time. This is seen in our current five-year semiconductor revenue forecast, which does not show recovery to 2007 levels until 2012. Vendors must prepare for significant changes in consumer buying behavior, technology demand patterns and a changed supplier landscape.”

In other words, as consumers in the United States and around the world see their disposable incomes rise, end-user requirements may change. Being able to effectively key into their new wants and needs will therefore be critical to developing that next killer electronic product or hot new product feature. Social media offers one viable solution to this dilemma and as a result, is fundamentally changing the way companies work and yes, even the way design teams may work one day.

For anyone looking to employ social media in product development, there are a few things to remember.

  • Using social media for product development is not the same as using it for marketing—don’t treat it as if it were. Insights obtained from social media are generally used for product marketing and public relations, but today there are also social media monitoring and analysis solutions that can provide insight into consumer-generated content for use in product development activities.
  • You will need to engage communities to help shape your product design, but you don’t want to end up with a product that appeals to only a small, niche market. Therefore, making sure you engage the right forums, communities and so on is crucial.
  • Rather than using social media haphazardly, you should establish a framework for including it in your product development. As Gartner pointed out in its 2009 Top 10 Strategic Technologies document, social software in all its shapes and forms (e.g., social media, social collaboration and social validation) is something organizations need to consider, now rather than later, since the greatest risk lies in failure to engage by coming too late to the party.
  • Employing social media for product development has been done before, so don’t jump in head first without taking the time to check out your available resources (e.g., case studies and best practices). One resource to check out is the “Using Social Media for Product Development” event archived at Forrester Research.

If there is one thing that’s been made clear by the battle-scarred global economy, it’s that things can’t and won’t continue the way they always have. This definitely holds true for the development of electronic products. Social media, an offspring of the continuing evolution in communications, may very well prove to be a key weapon in the system engineer’s quest to design and develop the next killer electronic product.