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    Improving product design and development performances in SMEs with user centred design activities

    Bolton, Simon Mark (2013) Improving product design and development performances in SMEs with user centred design activities. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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    The study is framed within the context and knowledge that companies that continually achieve product design and development success, habitually work more closely with customers and users. They do this to discover needs and wants in order that these might be translated into new or improved product or service offerings. It is widely recognised that many companies achieve success by reaching-out to customers and users directly in order to tap into what matters most to the people that will purchase and use their products and services: such engagement enables the development of a healthy pipeline of breakthrough products and services. The importance of connecting with customers and users is not a new phenomenon: building-in the voice of the customer is a critical element of well-established tools such as Quality Functional Deployment (QFD) in large organisations. Awareness of this sparked the simple question, ‘why, with so much support and clear evidence of the benefits of customer- and user-involvement in identifying and fulfilling needs has the practice not become universally embedded within product design and development activities?’ The main aim of this study is to build upon the work of organisations such as the Design Council and NESTA, and authors such as Herstatt and von Hippell, Cooper and Kleinschmidt and Ulrich and Eppinger. These agencies and researchers have indicated - in numerous studies and publications - that direct contact with customers and end-users is one of the best means of generating information about new product ideas. They also assert that ‘experiencing’ the use environment of a particular product or function is a prerequisite for generating high quality information. Many studies provide useful insights into generic best practices and offer evidence to support the assertion that direct contact with customers and end-users is important for large organisations. The research reported below continues in this vein but extends the analysis to examine specifically: (i) the importance (to business success) of fulfilling customer needs, (ii) the extent of customer and user involvement in identifying and fulfilling needs, (iii) the range of activities in which stakeholders and users are typically involved, (iv) the classes of issues discussed in engagement practices, and (v) the issues that contribute to success and failure in product development in SMEs. The study is important in two key respects. First, because even though organisations such as the Design Council and NESTA have highlighted the positive impact that fulfilling user needs can have on business growth, there remains a mismatch between perceived wisdom and practice. Second, from a research perspective, it builds upon existing theory and provides a level of granularity that both extends understanding and provides novel insights with respect to how the gap between theory (known value) and practice (adoption and use) might be bridged. The research was undertaken in three key phases. The first involved a series of scoping and context-setting interviews with respondents in selected, innovating SMEs. The second phase involved the development of a sector-based sample of SMEs and the distribution of a comprehensive qualitative-quantitative survey questionnaire. Following data analysis, a third phase witnessed the validation and nuancing of initial results via further engagement with selected innovating SMEs in the safety, general products, and healthcare sectors. Key findings from the study include the following: users and customers are an excellent source of ideas and intelligence in the product development process, however, many companies fail to exploit customers optimally (or at all) as a development resource; identifying user needs is an integral component in the product design process, but many companies lack the skills and knowledge to undertake this work adequately; where customer/user engagement is witnessed, it is frequently at non-optimal phases in the development process and limited in ambit (or undertaken by functions that are poorly-equipped to reap full benefits); and, whilst theory relating to user-involvement is widely recognised in the SME community, this is rarely translated effectively into cutting-edge practice. The study provides a contribution to new knowledge by focusing on the improvement of front-end product design and development performance via the deployment of user-centred design activities. It unpacks and details the factors that impact on identifying and fulfilling customer needs in front-end product development in UK SME manufacturing companies, and develops a framework that aids in reducing uncertainty and maximising effective practice in the development process. Further, the work maps and analyses state-of-the-art research in the domain and presents an agenda for future investigation designed to stimulate and support improved user-engagement activity and thus improved product development outcomes.

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