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Users make a product innovative, designer says

STANFORD - Edison Tse, a Stanford associate professor of economic systems engineering, has a guiding tenet: "It's the user who makes a product innovative, not me, the designer."

Tse became interested in understanding innovation seven years ago when he began reading about America's eroding competitive position. He and a student designed a computer model for predicting the market share of different players in the petro-chemical industry.

That helped him to see that "competition is really a matter of trying to fill user needs. Companies have differing skills, consumers have differing needs, and it's a matching game out there."

Sony engineers, for instance, had the skill to initially design the videotape recorder for recording hour-length TV programs, but users used it more intensely to play rental movies. Another manufacturer noted this and moved quickly to design and license a product that played two- hour tapes. As a result, Tse said, Sony's Betamax format lost out.

3M, on the other hand, turned a glue that wouldn't stick tight into its revolutionary Post-It notes by paying attention to creative employees' use of samples.

These examples illustrate two points in Tse's theory of innovation:

  • "Product development is not just the isolated activity of design engineers. You've got to involve people at higher corporate levels who understand the entire process from financing to creation of distribution channels to service."
  • "You need to entice the creativity of users, especially in helping to shape your early design."

Tse's theories are tested and revised through real-world experience. In one trial, he helped a family business reposition itself in the domestic market and gain entry to an international market.

"My family owns a small company in Hong Kong that makes pre- inked stamps," Tse said. "Their competitors were trying to control this very small market there by controlling the supply of a chemical needed to make the stamp.

"I asked, what can you do in this situation? Well, you could try to develop the chemical, but that was an expensive proposition for a small company to take on.

"The other thing that goes into a pre-inked stamp is the mount," he said. "Everybody in this business, of course, hadn't thought much about the mount. Conventional wisdom is that it's the chemical that's important, not the mount.

"But if you think about it, the first thing people notice when they buy a stamp is the mount. I said to my brother, 'If you can design a mount that is better for everybody in the world, then you can trade for the chemical.' "

The two of them pretended to be users, stamping every paper in sight until one of them said he felt like he was punching a race car through its gears. The next day, they went shopping for sports cars, just to test the feel of gear shift handles in the palm.

"I provided the theory and my brother did all the work, which included coming up with a lot of designs based on the gear handles and getting feedback from sales people. A whole line of mounts was introduced on the international market last year, and they are doing very well," Tse said.

"We solved the competition problem not directly but by repositioning the company into the worldwide market with a newly designed product. "

In a second case, Tse helped design an expert system to supervise an automated manufacturing process.

"Our initial creative users, in this case, were people on a manufacturing floor," Tse said. "They used our controller system for about two months, then stopped. Things constantly change in a factory so that the so-called knowledge base in our system was obsolete in two months. People got frustrated when the system couldn't handle the changes.

"At that point, the company president and I made the decision we couldn't sell the system. There was nobody who could sell it for us, and even if one could, it was likely to end up like the junk we all have in our closets."

Tse's team redesigned the system to permit users to easily change the knowledge base themselves. They wrote programs that hid the knowledge-system-engineer's lingo from the users.

"Now, we are getting an enthusiastic response from distributors and end users," he said. "It's too early to tell if it will be a big success, but people are finding creative uses for it that we had not intended."

A doctor has used it to build a knowledge base that trains new medical students in surgery techniques. Another company uses it to train operators of complex equipment.

"If users cannot take an idea beyond what you originally thought they could use, then you probably do not have an innovation," Tse said. "Our job is to twist technology around to give users something that will make them creative. You've got to tip your toe out there, watch the innovation start to happen and respond fast."



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