Rethink Marketing

Visualizing Product Design:
A Conversation with Ignition


When you think of innovative product design, do the words cool, flashy, and fun come to mind? Maybe. But what makes you buy a product over and over? Is it really the clever design, or something more – something that the design itself helps creates?

#JGIgnition, a product design and development company, helps companies create ideas and turn them into successful products. For 20 years, Ignition has partnered with some of the most recognized brands in the world to bring more than 1,000 products to market. Join us as we talk to Jeff Garrett, chief marketing officer at Ignition, to understand the blend of customer insights, organization culture, and product attributes that guarantee the vital connection between products and users.

Jeff, it’s said that designers must see beyond the product to the end user to create a satisfying experience. How does Ignition put this philosophy to work in practice?

Everyone in the business of delivering a product should look beyond it and think of the end user. But many companies get sidetracked by engaging too long in “spec sheet marketing” – reactively comparing performance specs and features lists with the competition and building products based on those results. In early product development stages, a company can get away with some spec sheet marketing because all players are building up to a standard product feature set . As the market matures, however, a company must determine whether that approach fulfills customer need and creates an emotional connection to the product .

Another issue is that many technology companies have a technology looking for a solution. Companies think of themselves as being in the wireless, computing, WIFI or RFID business and applying that technology to every problem. They are trying to back fit the technology to the problem rather than solving it efficiently with simpler solutions. The tricky thing is that somebody who has a fresh take on the market, end user or the problem can come in and transform the market space.

At Ignition, we spend a lot of time with our customers, pushing past the cloud of competitor products, and channels, to get to the end user. We look not only at the fundamental needs that the product seeks to satisfy, but also at alternate ways to solve the problem with the same approach or a different one. This process takes a lot of effort and can be fairly expensive, but the cost of not doing it at all and missing the market is far worse.

New product design and development often demands visualization of consumer needs, ones they themselves may be unaware of. What is Ignition’s research approach to uncover these latent needs?

The very first thing we do is to confirm our customer’s specific target market. If the customer is unsure of its target market, our first challenge is to collaboratively identify these segments.

The next step is to understand the end user’s underlying needs. If we are dealing with a simple product extension with non-branding objectives, in-depth interviews with current users can give us insights on evolving next-generation products.

If the product intent is to disrupt the market, we have to go beyond user interviews. We use a combination of observational methods – live, camera, pager, and video studies. The methods used are always in context of product usage: if the product is used at home, we go to the respondent’s home; if at work, to the work environment, and so on. We need more than verbal inputs; we need to know what’s in the user’s environment, what affects his behavior, attitudes and mannerisms, all within the context of the product.

Our techniques are rooted mostly in anthropology rather than psychology. We combine ethnography principles, observational methods and deep interviews to unearth information. This data is then analyzed by people with different points of view and disciplines like engineers, designers and ethnographers, which gives us the design foundation. This heuristic process, balancing analytical thinking and creative inputs, really sets us apart from other design firms.

What problems does Ignition help solve for its customers?

Often, we are contacted by R & D executives with a new technology who don’t know how to convert it into a concrete product. We work with them to uncover opportunities to apply technology, even though our focus is mainly on human-centered design and not necessarily in product technology.

Another scenario occurs when Product Marketing identifies a need in the market but doesn’t know how to develop a product to meet this need. We help drive concepting and product development to create a right-sized offering.

Some of our most significant projects have come from CEOs who want to revamp their businesses or change the way in which they address their customers’ businesses. Often, the answer doesn’t lie in just the product, but in an integrated solution that includes a product, service, content, third-party applications, and more.

A great example is a project we did on power and connectivity opportunities for an electronics firm. We uncovered an underserved niche in the frequent traveler segment. One of our recommendations was to partner with a travel entity like Expedia, that could deliver the service and co-brand the product effectively.

A fast-growing market for us is the retail channel space, especially in Asia. Private labels and brands are coming of age in Asia, and the competencies of the retail channel lie in sourcing and merchandising, not in product development. China is transitioning from creating products for global markets to products for its own domestic market, so branding is becoming important in a way never seen before. Additionally, there are local brands trying to become global brands. We are able to service these design needs through our two Asian offices.

Product design is a critical component in brand strategies. Yet, many people view branding as nothing more than packaging, a logo or a tagline. How does product design lead and support strong branding?

Brand is a strangely used word and holds different meaning for each person. From our perspective, a brand is essentially a many-to-one mapping of product or company attributes. For the consumer, a particular brand maps to a specific set of attributes and he/she substitutes that brand for an analytical evaluation of performance, features, and cost.

All great brands succeed in creating an emotional connection, not just a rational substitution. A long term emotional connection with customers is created one product at a time, one transaction at a time, and one service at a time. The role of design is to put that emotion and passion into the product so that it gets communicated to the end user and establishes repeat buying and usage behavior. In doing it authentically, product design relates to the brand at the highest level.

Of all the awards we have won, Ignition is most proud of the Design of the Decade award for our work with Leapfrog because it’s awarded for business success. We helped the company design its very first product, contributed to its business success, and ultimately aid in the launch of the company. It’s a great example of creating business directly through design and product development.

Why is it so important to distill intangible feelings and attributes into a three-dimensional product?

Looking at the purchase process from awareness to post-purchase evaluation, the product is what the consumer is going to spend the most time with long after the messaging, packaging, and advertising impact is gone. So, it really is important to understand the trade off between non-recurring costs (NRE) costs, design, product development, and product/brand longevity. A great example of this is Apple: its iconic design and popularity transcends the cost of its products.

How can product design affect the marketing initiatives of your customers?

It can be very disruptive. Many clients accept the idea that their products will be disruptive in the marketplace but don’t realize that these products can disrupt corporate processes and organizations as well.

Ignition has defined a stage within its processes where the customer needs to set aside time to review the impact of the new direction, whether it is affects the product idea, target market, positioning, or messaging, and rethink the marketing programs accordingly. This also offers Ignition an opportunity to add value by using its experience and insights to overcome obstacles in product launch and go-to-market strategies.

How can design help differentiate brands when products become increasingly commoditized?

As a product category matures, it becomes commoditized in terms of performance and features. But what is left in this brand space is design. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the case of cell phones: Motorola with its revolutionary RAZR design surpassed Sanyo, Nokia, and Samsung and changed the market space.

The second aspect of creating differentiation between two similar products goes back to authenticity. No two situations are the same – the target market can be different, the company can be different, or both can be different. By delving deep and understanding these differences, a unique connection is created between the company and user and achieves that competitive positioning.

At the end of the day, we never forget that Ignition is in the business of design and not the design business.

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Jeff Garrett is Principal and Chief Marketing Officer of Ignition, Inc. where he leads Business Development. With more than 17 years of experience in engineering, product development, business planning, strategic marketing and market research, Jeff has led the development of the “Heuristic Discovery Process” at Ignition, creating a unique offering among international design firms with exceptional value for its customers.

In 1997, Jeff co-founded The Mercury Group, a Strategic Marketing Consultancy dedicated to helping customers define, plan, and execute new business opportunities for a wide range of clients from startups to Fortune 500 companies. He started his professional career with Texas Instruments with stints in their defense systems, consumer electronics and DLP business units.

Jeff holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Business Administration, Finance from The University of Texas at Dallas.

Summer 2007