When I need inspiration solving a tough problem I often turn to FastCo Design or Core 77 to see how clever designers have dreamed up elegant solutions to everyday problems. But since I started raiding the product design world for inspiration several years ago, only a small handful of the thousands of supposedly game-changing designs have turned into real, mass-produced products, and even fewer have become commercially successful.
Why do phenomenal product designs end up as paper tigers when they clearly appear to satisfy unmet needs in the marketplace? It seems likely that the brilliant design thinking that makes these products look like winners on paper is the reason they actually fail.
Intent on solving narrow technical challenges, talented product designers can easily overdesign their products to satisfy jobs that are not critical. Overdesigning products into failure is not just a phenomenon that afflicts high-tech products like smart phones and TVs but also applies to everyday items.
As fall has come to the Boston area I recently found myself in need of an umbrella. Taking stock of the rain gear around the office, I could easily see that nearly all umbrellas follow the same basic design: a round hood supported by equal-length spokes that emanate from a handle. While improvements have been made over the years to make the units more compact and easier to operate, very few novel designs have made it to market.
One exception is the aerodynamic SENZ storm umbrella. It’s a cleverly designed product capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds that would cause other umbrellas to flip inside-out and fail. The brainchild of an independent designer, the SENZ umbrella gathered dozens of design and product-innovation awards before being picked up by the accessories giant Totes.
The SENZ umbrella looks and feels like a marvelous invention, a rain covering for the modern age, made of fiberglass and aluminum, comparable in price to other high-end umbrellas. The promise of higher performance for the same price certainly makes this product look like a winner on paper, and yet it has failed to deliver on sales.
A cursory look at the jobs for which people hire an umbrella reveals why an aerodynamic, unflipable umbrella isn’t the future of staying dry.
Anyone who has used an umbrella in windy conditions can testify to how annoying it is when one flips inside-out. But anyone who has been in winds strong enough to flip a heavy-duty umbrella also knows that they afford very little protection at all under those conditions, even when they hold their shape. If the job consumers wanted an umbrella to do was “never, ever flip,” the SENZ would be a revolutionary product. But the real job for which consumers hire an umbrella is, of course, to keep dry, and in really heavy winds neither the SENZ nor any other umbrella currently on the market can do that job. In less harsh conditions, the standard umbrella offers good enough performance the vast majority of the time. The SENZ umbrella is certainly a feat of design and engineering but it doesn’t offer a benefit customers will pay a premium for. The result? The SENZ umbrella is currently selling for just over a third of its intended retail price.
The story of the SENZ umbrella is unfortunately common. A quick scan of design publications will yield hundreds of innovative products that have been overdesigned to the point of commercial failure—solutions to problems consumers are not interested in solving.
Admittedly, I purchased a SENZ umbrella as they were being liquidated by an online retailer. I was not motivated by the functional job of staying dry in a hurricane but by the emotional job of satisfying a rather scientific curiosity. I am sure the umbrella will work fine in the New England drizzle that dominates the fall months…Does anyone know when the next windstorm is?
Aisaku Pradhan is an analyst at Innosight.