Author: Frederick (Ken) Sexe
Perception is important to engineering design because it links an individual’s observations to patterns of thought formed by previous experiences. Perception influences behavior that subsequently can influence decisions. No design can overcome a poor customer perception no matter how perfect it may seem without an understanding of how customer perceptions influence acceptance of the product. An effective way to include customer perceptions into a design is to increase interactions between engineers and the end user. Increasing engineering exposure to customers, especially during testing, can provide valuable insights as to how the product meets their needs. Traditional organization structures unfortunately remove engineers from direct customer interactions customer by placing responsibility for customer interaction with other departments. Engineers are also traditionally trained to focus on specifications in design and not on abstract variables where perceptions affect design.
Two examples illustrate how product design can influence customer perceptions. A Japanese bathroom appliance manufacturing company designed a toilet using one-fourth less water than previous toilets. Sales of the new toilet lagged as the customer perceived that the toilet was less hygienic because the water visually swirled less than traditional toilets. The engineers redesigned the toilet so that the water swirled at the same rate as the older toilets after which point sales of the toilet recovered. An American laundry soap manufacturer, when they first introduced washing powder to consumers, had very disappointing sales of the product and almost discontinued the product until they learned that consumers did not believe that it was effective because no suds formed compared to laundry soap. The company redesigned the product so that suds would appear at which point the product became highly successful.
Some companies have found success in developing methods involving customers early in product design stages as a means to not only understand how the customer will perceive the value of their product but to also find new ways to apply core technologies to customer needs. A Japanese car manufacturer once had a six-month testing period in which customers would use the new vehicle while providing recommendations to engineers. A British company entering the Indian market selling bread spread for its intended use soon realized that Indians used their product as a food additive instead. Discovering this early in the market introduction allowed the company to change the product packaging and marketing to exploit this knowledge where it has found huge success in a market previously not considered.
Many organizations unfortunately postpone consumer testing until the final design stages and in many cases during the manufacturing phase. Increasing the distance between engineering and end users combined with late consumer testing increases the possibility that negative perceptions of the product are either never identified or are identified later requiring a more costly redesign. Reducing the time between design and understanding consumer perceptions coupled with engineer training on how to interpret and apply these perceptions to a design has the potential to both increase product acceptance and reduce costly redesign as these perceptions become manifest.
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Frederick (Ken) Sexe is a lifelong learner currently wrapping up his PhD in Engineering Management and Organizational Psychology at Northcentral University. His hobbies include challenging prevailing patterns of thinking that discourage new ideas while developing new ways to do things. He is currently employed as a Senior Systems Engineer at Raytheon where he is taking a career break from management to pursue his educational goals and focus on his family.