Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How Creating Platforms Changes the Design Process

The creation of an effective platform adds some significant dimensions to the traditional industrial design task. To the fundamental industrial design objectives of creating product designs that are user friendly, esthetically pleasing, and signal the desired image of a product or service, platform creation adds at least three strategically critical design tasks.

First, platform designers must work closely with business strategic managers to define adequately the business goals and market strategy for a new product. In effect, platform creators must work closely with business managers to define the intended strategic positioning of a product line or service in the marketplace. Increasingly, this task is concerned not just with the first generation of a product or service, but also with future generations of products and services as well. The key to carrying out this design task is providing business managers with better ways of representing consumer perceptions of a product space and of the positioning of competing products within that space. The “High Design” methodology developed by Philips Design, for example, systematically helps business and product line managers map the way consumers perceive a given kind of product space, and also helps them evaluate the positionings of a new product line within that product space that could be most advantageous strategically. Only after designers work with managers to thoroughly explore consumer perceptions of a given kind of product and alternative positionings of a new product within a product space can the business goals and market strategy for achieving those goals be defined adequately to give clear direction to a platform development process.

Second, today the commercial success of a product depends not just on the design and technical performance of a product, but increasingly on the performance of a firm’s supply chain in getting the exact product variations desired by a customer to the right place at the right time. The decisions that designers make about products fundamentally determine the complexity of the supply chain needed to realize a product or service—and thus the speed and reliability of a supply chain in configuring and delivering products and services to customers. Designers who participate in creating platforms must interact intensively with supply chain professionals to fully grasp the operational implications of alternative product and service designs. The objective of these interactions should be to develop insights into the most advantageous ways of strategically partitioning a product architecture to improve strategically important aspects of supply chain performance. An example of this would be supporting faster supply chain response to customer orders by partitioning product architectures to enable last-point differentiation of product variations in manufacturing processes.

Third, because platforms must help firms compete on cost as well as product and supply chain performance, designers involved in creating platforms will work much more intensively on supply chain cost issues than is typically the case in traditional industrial design processes. In effect, while traditional industrial design is concerned primarily with the manufacturing cost of a product, the cost management concerns of platform creators extend into all aspects of the product realization process. Costs of carrying parts inventories and work-in-process, costs of packaging and shipping, and costs of servicing and repairing products are all affected—often substantially—by product and service design decisions. These issues must therefore be extensively explored in defining product and service architectures that are as cost effective as possible in meeting market demands for product variety, product upgrades, and supply chain performance.

Making “Platform-Thinking” an Integral Part of Design

The power of platforms to support aggressive, successful new market strategies is being demonstrated today by firms that have correctly understood that a platform is not just a new management fad based on some vague and fuzzy notion. Firms successfully pursuing platform-driven strategies have learned that platforms are a powerful design approach that requires clarity, definition, and discipline—as well as creativity—in conceiving a strategically-focused, well-balanced, and carefully-coordinated system of product and process architectures. As platform thinking and platform-driven market strategies increasingly become an integral part of global management practice, designers are finding that their role in creating new products is fundamentally changing and becoming even more strategically vital. But assuming this new role will challenge designers to broaden our conceptualization of design objectives and to learn new ways of working with a broader cross-section of management concerns and professionals.

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