What do Threadless, an ecommerce website, and Linux, an open-source software operating system, have in common? These brands rely on a user-design philosophy to crowdsource product designs and develop software code, respectively. Similarly, Starbucks, a more traditional brand, solicits new product ideas through mystarbucksidea.com and has implemented 320 crowdsourced ideas over an eight-year period.
“Crowdsourcing,” a popular term for what is defined in the literature as “user-driven design,” is a successful innovation approach in which users create value alongside the firm. Research has found that nonparticipating users, or those who only observe and learn about a firm’s design philosophy (user-design vs. company-design), view user-design approaches as more innovative and customer-oriented, leading to positive evaluations. Other research has demonstrated that user-design approaches increase consumer identification with the firm by creating feelings of vicarious empowerment.
But are consumers universally positive about user-centered design? A new study in the Journal of Marketing explores whether consumer perceptions of user-centered design changes based on variables such as geographical location, cultural context, and political affiliation. Stated differently, will the benefits seen in employing user-design strategies in a U.S. context be just as successful when employed in high power-distance cultures such as India, Guatemala, or China? And if so, should corporations such as Starbucks be selective about when and how they communicate their use of user-designed approaches based on variations in cultural contexts?
Our research team demonstrated through both experiments and field studies that the positive observer user-design effect found in previous research is either attenuated or reversed for those who have high-power-distance beliefs via country, political orientation, individual difference, and manipulation.
Power-distance beliefs are the extent to which one accepts that power in society is distributed unequally, including the expectation of power disparity. We propose that the empowerment offered by user-design approaches will resonate more with low-power-distance consumers because of their general preference for equality. By contrast, we propose that high-power-distance consumers value company expertise, leading to higher quality inferences, which will contribute to their relative preference for company-designed products. Because consumers who are high in power-distance beliefs respect authority more, they may consider a company’s expertise more valid than a contributing peer’s. Importantly, we also examined the role of political orientation as an important proxy for power-distance beliefs. Political orientation is a managerially accessible variable that can capture power-distance beliefs in the U.S. market. A key variable that distinguishes liberals from conservatives is their differential views of equality versus authority, an attribute that aligns closely with power-distance beliefs.
In the case of Starbucks, our research suggests that the firm will benefit from highlighting the use of mystarbucksidea.com in low-power-distance countries such as Austria (and for U.S. liberals), but not in high-power-distance countries such as Guatemala (and for U.S. conservatives).
We tested our hypotheses across a variety of product categories (software, furniture, T-shirts, and academic research), with an emphasis on using real data (Facebook advertising, Google Trends) and managerially relevant proxies (country and political orientation) to confirm the generalizability of the results.
Our research offers several contributions to extant literature. First, we demonstrated that the value of publicizing a user-design approach may be attenuated or even possibly backfire for consumers with high-power-distance beliefs. Second, we uncovered the mediating processes and showed that feelings of empowerment and valuing company expertise vary based on power distance beliefs. Third, we demonstrated the effects of political orientation as a managerially accessible segmentation variable. Recent research has demonstrated differential effects on consumer preferences depending on political orientation. Our research contributes to this important line of research while also demonstrating the relationship between power-distance beliefs and political orientation and their downstream consequences.
From: Neeru Paharia and Vanitha Swaminathan, “Who Is Wary of User Design? The Role of Power-Distance Beliefs in Preference for User-Designed Products,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (May).
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