Monday, January 19, 2009

Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis is talking Open Car Design!

Here I have repeated Jeff Jarvis' post of this weekend. I think that some of the responses (I have included one and my response to it) are illuminating in the struggle for the soul of many companies in this new web-enabled, crowdsourced, age. The post [followed by comments and responses]:

Opening design (by Jeff Jarvis)

Fred Wilson brags about his portfolio company, Buglabs, opening its redesign process with Ideo to the public — as well he should. Opening up makes sense especially for a company producing what is supposed to be open-source hardware. But it makes sense for any company in most any industry.

In What Would Google Do?, I argue that even automakers should open up design.

What if just one model from one brand were opened up to collaborative design? Once more, I don’t suggest that design should be a democracy. But shouldn’t design at least be a conversation? Designers can put their ideas on the web. Customers can make suggestions and discuss them. Designers can take the best ideas and adapt them, giving credit where it is due. I don’t imagine customers would collaborate on transmission or fuel- pump design—though a few might have great suggestions if given a chance. But they would have a lot to contribute on the passenger compartment, the look of the car, the features, and the options. They could even get involved in economic decisions: Would you be willing to give up power windows if it got you a less- expensive car or a nicer radio? This collaboration would invest customers in the product. It would build excitement. It would get the product talked about on the web and linked to and that would earn it Googlejuice. It could change the relationship of customers to the brand and that would change the brand itself. Imagine that: the collaborative community car—our car.

The entire chapter on on the Googlemobile is supposed to be run in Business Week later this month; I”ll link to it when it goes up.

I also argue in other chapters that there are many ways to open up. When Google puts out a beta - or when a journalist publishes an unfinished story and asks for help - it is a way to open up the design process.

[Response from a commenter discussing the ineptitude of focus groups]:
DK says:

Car companies did just that for years on end with countless focus groups.
By doing that you get bland, milquetoast automobiles that are watered down thanks to their design-by-committee nature. Remember the Simpsons episode where Homer designs a car? It’s not far off from that, except unbearably bland and awful rather than outlandish and tacky.

The best cars are always designed by people with passion and a single minded purpose. BMW- The Ultimate Driving Machine, Honda-Family cars designed by Formula 1 fanatics. Don’t even get me started on the enthusiast companies.

Granted, there are good ways to get consumers involved in the design process. When Honda wanted to design a minivan, they went and interviewed people picking their kids up from school about what they wanted in a minivan. The first generation Odyssey flopped (though it was a good car), but the second and third generation models were a success.

Ultimately, some things should be left to the pros. Cars are one of them.

[Response by me to the comment above]:
You can have all. Passion, Consumer involvement and Pros involved. We have found that there are many many more people outside of the industry with passion that runs even deeper than (or at least as deep as) those within it. This ratio of passion outside to passion inside is getting even more lop-sided as the auto economy worsens, and such out of work impassioned good people are just as useful to a process outside of a job as in one. What's more, we are all honored to participate in great projects when our opinion is valued.

We have also found that if you listen to customers directly and often with an open pipeline but a firm professional hand on the production tiller, that you can build a strong product together. (Customers lead -> Pro's build and advise = Customers get a professional car that is what they asked for). Great equation and very different from (Marketers lead -> Pro's build and advise = 50/50 chance that customer gets what they want, when they want, and in the right numbers).

I agree that the current auto manufacturer OEM is not set up to use this customer feedback, and when it tries it is almost guaranteed to have an unbuildable or unprofitable car (not sure which is worse). Focus groups are not the same as an open pipeline of information set up to be part of the process on a two-way street. No one ever tried to educate the customer in a focus group. With open-car companies, the company can give back as much as it gets.

The key is NOT applying the suggestions in this post to the current auto industry as it is conceived. Software did this transition, T-shirts did this, major drug companies did this with their most complex and expensive drugs, P&G did this with their most precious product lines. From expensive to cheap, and simple to complex, this revolution of the way to involve customers and to improve products is here.
For more of this dialogue, please visit the post and Jarvis' deep thinking blog entitled the Buzz Machine. His is one of the best organized and simple to consume blogs that I have seen. Interestingly enough, his next post after this is about the fight for survival of traditional journalism. I take keen interest in this as the blogosphere grows. Good comments, critiques, and journalistic intent is not a god-given skill and anyone interested in protecting them would do well to read Jeff's post.