Avoiding Failure: An Article by Robin Roy

Many new products and innovations fail to reach the market, or if they do, are not sold in sufficient numbers to provide a return on investment, or be adopted widely enough to be considered a success. Lack of relative advantage has already been mentioned, but what do the case studies suggest are other main reasons for product failure?

Premature innovation

The case studies provide several examples of new products or innovations based on technologies that were insufficiently developed to offer the performance or prices required to persuade enough consumers to adopt them. For example, few consumers bought early compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) due to their high cost, slow warmup, dimness, size and weight compared to traditional incandescent light bulbs. CFL sales only took off after price reductions and the development of more compact designs with faster warmup and increased brightness. Nevertheless, CFLs only became commonplace after incandescent light bulbs began to be withdrawn from sale in the early 2000s. As noted earlier, CFLs are being displaced by more efficient and longer lasting LED lamps.

Inadequate complementary assets

Some new products and innovations depend for their operation on external networks or systems – in innovation theory called ‘complementary assets’. The new product or innovation cannot be widely adopted until those assets have been widely implemented. For example, following Japanese high-definition television (HDTV) experiments, Philips developed analogue HDTV sets in the mid-1980s. But despite excellent picture quality, Philips's HDTV failed because the HD cameras and transmission standards necessary for a high-definition television service had not yet been introduced. Philips did not benefit from its pioneering efforts when digital HDTV was finally commercialised twenty years later.

Unnecessary ‘bells and whistles’

As products evolve, there is a tendency for manufacturers to add new functions to differentiate their products from the competition and to persuade consumers to buy new models. These functions sometimes include ones that consumers do not use, want or need. 3D TV sets, for instance, entered the UK market in 2009. To see a high definition 3D picture mostly required viewers to wear heavy battery-powered spectacles – not very suitable for family viewing. 3D TV therefore was not a feature that persuaded many consumers to buy a new set, or stimulated broadcasters to make 3D content. Hence, although some manufacturers still offer models with 3D, it is not widely used, especially given the limited 3D content available.

Robin Roy is Emeritus Professor of Design and Environment at the Open University. Since joining the OU in 1971 as one of the first lecturers in Design, he has chaired and contributed to many OU courses on design, innovation, energy and environment, most recently Design Essentials; Innovation: Designing for change; and Environment: Journeys through a changing world. In 1979, he founded the Design Innovation Group to research design and innovation management and sustainable design. He has published many books, book chapters, papers and articles on topics ranging from design creativity and the successful management of new product development to environmentally sustainable education systems and consumer adoption of low and zero carbon technologies. He is a Fellow and Council member of the Design Research Society, a former Director of Carbon Connections Ltd. and a Trustee of Powerful Information, a local international development charity.

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