In competitive markets, people are usually happy with their products and hence are resistant to change. Breakthrough innovations have to act against the inertia of the social system. Assuming that the functionality of the breakthrough product is acceptable, form design (the design of the look and feel of products) becomes very critical to ensure acceptance. Designers have three choices: design the new product to look like exiting products, implement a radical form design that makes the new product look very different from the existing products, or fall somewhere in between.
Recent research shows that breakthrough innovations that are designed to look like existing products are likely to fare poorly in the market because consumers may think that both products offer similar value. Hence consumers may not be willing to switch to the new products. Products with radical designs fare poorly as well because consumers discount these products. A hybrid strategy that balances novel elements with the familiar elements appears to do best.
The electric light bulb is a perfect example of this hybrid strategy. Andrew Hargadon, author of “How breakthroughs happen: The surprising truth about how companies innovate,” has documented how Edison blended the novel elements (no soot and cleaner lighting) with the familiar elements of gas lamps. Despite having a 40 watt bulb in his laboratory, Edison introduced a 13 watt bulb because gas lamps at that time burnt with that low intensity. The initial bulbs were called burners after the gas burner. The size of the lamp fit existing gas burners and chandeliers that were in use. The upshot of this strategy is that this “hybrid” strategy piqued consumers’ interests and enabled the rapid diffusion of electric bulbs.
The shared look-and-feel strategy is common across many innovations. For example, keyboards are used in telegraphs, typewriters, computers, and tablets. Early cell phones borrowed heavily from landline phones. The lessons are clear for the designers of breakthrough products: choose designs carefully with a blend of the new elements with the old. It appears to provide the best chances of success for breakthrough products.
Professor of Business Administration and
James F. Towey Faculty Fellow and
Executive MBA Academic Director