Product Innovation And Service Innovation : Will The Future Be More Touchy Feely?

Hands massaging a man's back to symbolise touch.

Product design and service design are often seen as separate disciplines with different ‘rules’ and distinct processes. Now, a new piece of research has been undertaken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into the potential impact of the sense of touch. The findings of this study are relevant to both product designers and service designers.

According to the teams at MIT, how things feel to us can affect our behaviour quite significantly.

For example, in the experiments people who sat on hard chairs negotiated harder than those who sat on softer chairs.

In another of the experiments, volunteers asked to do a jigsaw puzzle and then read a story about an exchange between two people were more likely to judge the relationship between the pair as adversarial if the puzzle pieces were rough, not smooth.

And so it continues – people given a warm cup of coffee to hold were more likely to judge other people as caring and generous than those given a cold drink to hold.

So often, discussion about design focuses on to what extent form follows function. By this it is sometimes meant that ‘good design’ delivers an item that fulfils it function effectively without unnecessary ornamentation.

People often evaluate design with most of their focus on visual appearance. However, what the MIT research seems to be showing us is that another sense – touch can also influence function.

As an interesting aside, in the TRIZ body of knowledge – ‘increased use of the senses’ is identified as one direction in which innovators could develop their products to fulfil their ‘evolutionary potential’.

Added Value

So, it seems that considering the sense of touch provides an opportunity for innovators to ‘add value’.

Typically, when a designer designs an office chair he will consider a range of factors including the load the chair will carry, how it will support the human body, aesthetics, production cost, durability, cleanability etc. This might all be done with an understanding that the chair is ‘a product that enables an employee to sit comfortably at their desk.

However, by considering the sense of touch the chair might be designed to offer further benefits.

Might it be that we could soon have the ‘chair to increase productivity’  - because employees who sit in it feel better about their work? Or the ‘chair to increase revenue’  - because when a credit controller sits in it they behave tougher and are able to get better results. Or the chair to ‘increase customer satisfaction’ – because a call centre worker who sits in it feels warmer towards customer callers and this influences how they communicate with them? And all this would be achieved through the changed behaviour of the person in the chair because the chair design influences them through their sense of touch. Wow – those are big claims to make – and potentially great innovations.

And it’s not just chairs. It’s clear that designing to respond to our sense of touch can have implications across many markets.

In some sectors – an awareness of the impact on the sense of touch has informed the choice of fabrics for some time. Lingerie companies’ marketing communications hint to a greater or lesser degree that their silk items will make people feel good and behave sexily!

Hairdressers who include a head massage along with the conditioning stage of the hairdressing process are probably aware of how doing this increases the client’s sense of wellbeing and contributes to a feeling that they had a positive experience in the salon.

However, this research could act as a prompt to innovators and marketers to consider the opportunity of further exploiting the sense of touch in a way that can drive a ‘desirable behaviour’ in the product or service user.

Examples might include – designing the interior of a car to keep the driver feeling calmer and less likely to be stressed in traffic or, for some even, to help avoid them being provoked into road rage.

Or, perhaps gift wrapping paper with a texture that makes the gift receiver feel even more favourable towards the gift giver!

Article from the Independent with more on the MIT study