How to Balance Style and Substance in Product Design

Lance A. Bettencourt, PhD
AMA Scholarly Insights
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Key Takeaways

​What? Design has become a strategic priority so companies must understand how to invest in design to achieve bottom-line results.

So what? Research reveals that function and ergonomic design are supportive of one another. However, an increase in either leads to market share losses at high levels of form design.

Now what? Firms should either design for utilitarian or hedonic needs. Designing for high levels of both requires a level of investment that is not justified and could lead to lower market share.

​Scholarly Insights: AMA's digest of the latest findings from marketing's top researchers

In the past decade, design has gone from a company activity to a strategic priority and a source of competitive advantage. A simple Internet search of “product design excellence” reveals dozens of awards, such as those by the Industrial Designers Society of America and the Medical Design Excellence Awards.

If you’re anything like me, your first thoughts of “design” might veer toward what you can see – the visual appeal of a product. Certainly, what is referred to as “form design” gets our attention – and it is certainly a motivating factor for some consumer segments. There are going to be some people who want that leaf-shaped and bright green colored couch even if it’s not the most comfortable seat in the room.

But design is much more than this. Research and our own experience reveals two other very important dimensions. First, there is “function design,” which refers to how well a product fulfills important utilitarian needs of consumers. Second, there is “ergonomic design,” which refers to how easy and comfortable a product is to use.

Dyson vacuum cleaners, for example, while having an unusual look, have really established themselves on their differentiated design for function and ergonomics. Dyson vacuum cleaners, for example, have exceptionally strong suction without the need to clean or replace filters. In addition, design elements such as self-adjusting cleaner heads and ball technology make it easier to clean different surfaces and maneuver around sharp corners.

As firms look more and more to design as a strategic capability, it is important to consider how the different types of design work together to impact bottom-line results. Is more always better or is there a point of diminishing returns? Do different types of design excellence reinforce one another or is it better to set priorities for one or another?

Research on Design Strategy

In a forthcoming Journal of Marketing paper, “Designed to Succeed: Dimensions of Product Design and Their Impact on Market Share,” the researchers investigate these questions using a sample of automotive brands in the US light vehicle industry.

Looking at data for 33 brands (from Acura to Volvo) across 22 vehicle categories (e.g., low price small cars, large-size pickups, etc.) over a six-year time period, the researchers analyzed how consumer ratings of form, function, and ergonomic design drawn from JD Power’s consumer ratings impacted vehicle market share, calculated based on sales figures reported in Automotive News.

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Author Bio:

Lance A. Bettencourt, PhD

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