Customers as Co-designers

Alison Kidd & Peter Williams, The Prospectory, December 2001

Customers enjoy participating in product design.

Nick Newland of Swallow Boats, Cardiganshire designs beautiful, small wooden sailing boats. The Prospectory worked with Nick to help him understand the customer value of Swallow Boats from a psychological perspective. Psychology tries to explain why people think, feel and act the way they do. It can provide insights into the fundamental human needs and values that a product satisfies and this can spark new business ideas.

Ostensibly, customers buy Swallow Boats for aesthetic and practical reasons. They combine good looks and portability, and this is how Nick markets them. We interviewed a selection of his customers, as well as a few who decided not to buy, encouraging them to talk informally about boats, how they used them, and what they enjoyed about them. We recorded the conversations, then transcribed and analysed the language with the aid of a computer to uncover patterns in people’s behaviour, thoughts and attitudes.

We found that, whilst Nick’s customers appreciated the aesthetics and portability of their boats, their greatest delight was in the personal role which they felt they had played in their design. They loved talking to Nick about their dreams and seeing these shape his creative thinking: “you get engaged in conversation with him in the whole process of exploring ideas and playing with boats”. They felt like co-designers and were genuinely sorry when the purchase was completed.

Once they started to use their boat, many had adapted it to suit their interests and lifestyles. They revelled in the fact that “it’s not standard – it’s the sort of boat which makes you want to go out and play with it, to try things out, to experiment…”. These experiments included: novel sailing rigs (for canals or sailing under bridges); original ways to transport the boat (behind a bicycle or on the side of a vintage car); and original forms of ballast (a cool box filled with wine!). The result was something they felt expressed their creativity and personality, “it’s unusual, distinctive – you have the sort of boat that people notice and come to talk to you about – it says something about you!”

Fortunately, talking to customers and dreaming up new designs is what Nick likes most about his business. These personal relationships and the resultant designs would be difficult for a more industrialised business to provide.

But where do these findings lead us? They confirm a market trend away from the mass-produced toward more adaptable and individual boats, supporting a more spontaneous and individual lifestyle. We are now exploring with Nick ways to appeal more directly to this desire to personalise and adapt his boats in unique and creative ways. More of a challenge is how Swallow Boats can tap into people’s delight in co-designing new boats. One idea we’re exploring is the formation of design syndicates whose members invest a limited amount of their money for the opportunity to engage in generating, exploring and testing design ideas with Nick. This strange-sounding business model is consistent with the widely-noted increase in consumer spending on challenging, creative and fun ‘experiences’, as distinct from material goods and services.

And Nick’s reaction to The Prospectory’s research? “I’m now thinking about my business in an entirely different light”, was his enthusiastic comment.

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