I have recently been awarded Doctor of Philosophy in Product Design.
The focus of my doctoral research was on evaluating the consumer attachment and value enhancement towards mass customised products, particularly where the process of customisation is governed by automated systems, for example through computer algorithms, (i.e. customised for the consumer rather than by the consumer).
“customised for the consumer rather than by the consumer”
Product uniqueness has been identified as a consumer need by previous studies on product customisation and a factor of achieving satisfaction for which consumers would be willing to pay a premium. Previous studies suggest that choosing to customise responds to the consumer’s background factors: economic, social, cultural, technological and psychological factors. Furthermore, in developing economies, markets of consumers “strive to improve their standard of living by purchasing low cost, mass produced items” (Etgar 2008,99). In more developed economies, self-identification, group/peer identification and self-differentiation become more important; for example the desire for unique products becomes a motivator for customisation (key for product individualisation).
However, even in appropriate scenarios for product customisation, such choice is not necessarily a guaranteed desire by consumers. Reports suggest that some customers would choose not to customise some products, mainly due to unwillingness to invest time on the process and due to respondents struggling with technical abilities that might be required to customise products. This research evaluates if emotional attachment is dependent upon the degree of engagement with this particular individualisation process.
“emotional attachment is dependent upon the degree of engagement”
The methodology chosen included an iterative process of action plans, taking actions, evaluation of the actions, reflection and analysis for new action plans.
(Figure above, adapted from Coghlan and Brannick (2001), p19, Cardno and Piggot-Irvine (1996), p.19)
65 volunteers have been interviewed with a mixed methods approach, but with a core in qualitative data. Participants got to individualise t-shirts using computer software which allowed to have a pattern of 6 different colours over the fabric.
A brief view into the sample design
The sample for this research met the requirements of the design and the methods, which evolved through the iterative Action Research approach. Knott (2013) and Hermans (2014) identified different types of prosumers and characterised them as per their behaviour and skill in relation to customisation. From the literature findings, it became clear that this research would benefit from interviewing and comparing different types of prosumers, such as those who self-identified as being interested in art and design and those who did not. Therefore, the start of every interview for the main studies consisted of a short purposive ‘diagnostic’ stage assessing participants’ “qualitative degrees” (Knott, 2013: 47) as consumers, and their interest in art and design activities. This took the form of a semi-structured questionnaire where each participant’s profile was assessed against these criteria:
1- Willingness to engage in DIY (Do It Yourself)
2- Aspiration to possess unique products
3- Time reference: when was the last time the subject was involved in art or design activities
4- Self-identification as interested in art and design
C-riterion #1 referred to the consumers’ intention to purposively participate in co-design processes with physical and intellectual effort, typical of those who are keen in art or design activities, and possess skills and knowledge to take on such activities.
The aforementioned intention to participate in co-design and customisation was interpreted as a consumer need for differentiation (e.g. unique products), which provides a rationale for criterion #2, as follows:
-Criterion #2. Tepper et al. (2001) describe uniqueness as a consumer need and a source of added product value. Further, they explain there are consumers with different levels of such need. The sampling groups proposed below characterise them.
-Criterion #3 assessed consumers’ attitude to engage actively in art and design on a regular basis. An active prosumer is one who regularly welcomes opportunities to take part in co-design (such as decorating the home, modifying furniture, a vehicle, an electronic device), as opposed to the consumer who might seldom engage in co-design or who does it unwillingly.
Finally, criterion #4 was used as validation against the previous three criteria. Following sample designs found in literature, volunteers self-identified as interested in topics and issues relevant to this research. When a volunteer’s self-identification aligned with what was assessed through the previous three criteria, that participant’s ‘diagnosis’ was complete and he or she was allocated to the appropriate group. When the self-identification did not align to the findings in relation to the previous criteria, the entire dataset for that individual was revisited and a decision taken by the interviewer.
This research, then, separated the recruited participants into two sample groups and can be characterised as follows:
Group Active Consumers (AC) – Individuals who express an interest in art or design activities, by profession, study, hobby or keen interest and who are interested in getting a customised t-shirt in white fabric.
Group Passive Consumers (PC) – Individuals with no particular interest in art or design activities and who are interested in getting a customised t-shirt in white fabric.
A brief view into the toolkit
The computer software used to run the exercises had an algorithm which created the aforementioned patterns, as in the image below.
Then the interviewees then had to apply paint over the t-shirt following the design on the screen.
Above, some examples of the resulting t-shirts, and below some of the instruments used for the study.
Below, a design I made to participate on a poster event at De Montfort University. It contains some preliminary results after my data collection.
Results from this research suggest that despite limiting freedom of choice, individualisation is a valuable approach to product customisation, particularly for Passive Consumers willing to relinquish part of the decision making to an automated process, in order to obtain a customised and unique design. Active Consumers, on the other hand, value their freedom to customise their own products and see individualisation as a limitation to the customisation experience and as a hindrance to developing emotional attachment to the product.
These findings have the potential to inform entrepreneurs’ and designers’ decisions to better understand and exploit the benefits associated to individualisation processes. Offering specific consumer groups opportunities to engage with the individualisation process can trigger a strong emotional product attachment and potentially generate new business opportunities.
A full version of my thesis can be found downloaded from the British Library:
EThOS – British Library
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PhD thesis – Dr Juan Armellini
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A summarised version of my findings and conclusions can be found on my latest publication:
Armellini, J. and Ford, P. (2017) ‘Uniquely for you: the individualised avenue for longer product lifetimes’, in C. Bakker and R. Mugge (ed.) Product Lifetimes And The Environment 2017. Delft: Delft University of Technology and IOS Press, pp. 20–24, vol 9. doi: 10.3233/978-1-61499-820-4-20. http://ebooks.iospress.nl/volumearticle/47834
A previous output published in 2016 explained the methods used on my research:
Armellini, J., & Dean, L. (2016) Randomised Customisation: A Driver for Enhanced Product Value. The International Journal of Designed Objects, 10(2), 31–43.
Available at: http://ijgo.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.237/prod.80