Your Product Design Choice: Me-Too or Breakthrough

A market-leading diagnostic device company approached us to redesign its flagship product.  Not only was this a chance to work with the best, but an opportunity to innovate on a product with global reach.  After more than a decade and a half on the market, it was ripe for improvement.

After several discussions with the CEO, we proposed starting the project by spending time in the field.  We knew that observing customers and studying workflows would be the catalyst for innovation.  Unfortunately, she believed that her team would be able to convey everything we needed to know about customers and the way they used her company’s product.  I walked her through detailed case studies of past projects and other industry examples that proved the value of research-led initiatives, but she would not budge.

The win was bittersweet.  While we rejoiced at working with the industry leader, we were sad that the opportunity to go from me-too to breakthrough was at risk before the project even began.  In our experience, the best medical product design advances are derived from standing next to a doctor during surgery or sitting at a lab bench with a technician who is running diagnostic tests or following COPD patients around their homes.

This client attitude is unfortunately all too common. Let me share some insights about what keeps companies from reaching for the stars.

An executive team’s collective knowledge logically plays a powerful role in shaping company decisions. Acceptance of the status quo built upon a foundation of previous success can mask process flaws, keep certain user preferences from becoming known and cause blindness to new opportunities. Moving into the future, the things we know are not nearly as important as what we don’t know. Company leaders don’t always grasp that failure to question previous assumptions increases marketplace vulnerability.

Blinded By Your Own Brand

In some cases, company leaders over time simply become blinded by the power of their own brands. After investing so much time and money convincing world markets of their superiority, they start drinking their own Kool-Aid.  It’s easy for a market leader to hide behind its brand and start believing  “if we build it, they will come.” The greatest enemy of innovation, then, must surely be hubris.

Also, in competitive diagnostic markets, it’s important to recognize that change is the only constant. And it is change that exposes opportunities.

In our client’s case, everything had changed in the 15 years since its lead product won over the marketplace. The world is more interconnected now. Technology improvements have opened the door to entirely new solutions. These include new ways of accessing diagnostic products and even the possibility of entirely new product categories and user bases emerging as health care migrates from hospitals to outpatient clinics to doctor’s offices to the home.  Today, consumers welcome the opportunity to take a greater role in keeping themselves healthy if products are simple, effective and easy to use.

What we hoped for was our client’s permission and support to reach beyond what team members already knew and dig deep for fresh insights.  We wanted to get to “the truth” as I explained in a recent article The Quest For The Truth In Medical Product Design – a truth that might have led to innovations fundamentally transforming the client’s business. Instead, we delivered a beautifully designed product with incremental improvements to its use and function.

Our client was thrilled with the result and the product was well received by the market. Yet deep down, I felt that an opportunity had slipped away. In my opinion, a company founded on innovation should strive to reinvent itself one new product at a time, every time out.

What would have happened had we conducted a thorough investigation of user needs and the market landscape?  What game-changing opportunities might we have discovered?

The answers are unknowable, of course.

I hope that I have given you some food for thought. Before you embark on your next product development project, I urge you to ponder whether you can afford not to reach for the stars.

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