by Julie Smith -- May 21, 2014

For years consumers have been creating content for websites.  What started as product and restaurant reviews has expanded to include pictures, how to use/recipes, sizing information, and of course videos of their cats. Now that crowd sourced content has jumped from reactionary to influencing the actual products that are being created, companies like Quirky, Betabrand, Teespring, and StyleSaint among others are inviting consumers to take part in product development.  While these four companies all bring the consumer into the design tent, they do it in different ways.

What do you think this means for product design? What should traditional retailers and consumer product companies learn from these four companies?  Tell us what you think in the comments. 

Consumer as Innovator: Quirky. Have an idea?  No talent, resources, or time to create it yourself?  Have no fear, Quirky is here!  Quirky invites the community to submit ideas.  Consumers then vote on the ideas they like best.  Quirky brings together a community of experts and users to judge the “winners” and then its staff of product designers create it with the community refining the concept until the product is ready to ship.  The engagement of community to both source and refine the concepts helps create products with market fit and an initial base of customers.  To date Quirky boasts 306 products created by a community of 854K “inventors”.

Consumer as Design Editor and Marketer: Betabrand.  While users can submit their own ideas to Betabrand, the power of the Betabrand consumer experience is in the “editing” process.  Designers post images of prototypes or sketches for the community to fund.  Similar to Kickstarter, the community responds by selecting items that resonate with them (i.e. that they want to buy).  The community also adds to the designs, requesting new colors, additional pockets, alternate gender options, etc.  Through this process, the community makes the design better.  And then there’s the marketing.  Betabrand invites consumers to share images wearing its clothing, and it rewards them for doing so.  New to the experience?  No problem. Betabrand provides discounts for new customers uploading images with its key brand element (Betabrand “Beta” glasses).  Discount not enough?  Betabrand makes its users the stars of their own homepage that they can share with their friends, love interests, or just brag to their mother (the homepage is a personal link, but it looks like the main site).  Finally, Betabrand may also add the picture to the product page, demonstrating an item’s popularity and showing how it looks on a non-model’s figure.  By engaging shoppers as community members, giving them a voice in design, and encouraging them to model its styles, Betabrand has created customer loyalty and great clothing.

Consumer as Designer/General Manager:  Teespring.  It’s pretty simple.  Teespring allows you to open your own t-shirt business in three steps.  Step 1.  You design the t-shirt (or hire someone else to do the design).  Step 2.  You decide a minimum amount of t-shirts that you expect to sell (which determines the production costs) and the price. Step 3. You create a “campaign” which includes marketing messages, campaign length, shipping options, and a custom URL.  With these elements in place, you can now sell your t-shirt.  Importantly, buyers are not charged and t-shirts are not printed unless the minimum volume targets that you set in Step 2 are met.  The whole process, end-to-end, is crowd sourced and crowd marketed.  Teespring takes care of the production and fulfillment.

Consumer as Muse: StyleSaint. StyleSaint creates fashion that reflects the taste of its community.  Instead of telling shoppers what they should be wearing, StyleSaint has its community “tear” pages from around the web to express their fashion hopes and dreams in a Pinterest-type way.  Community members love, comment, and tear each other’s pictures, driving toward the most popular looks.  These images and interactions inspire and inform the original collection designed by StyleSaint.  By consulting with the consumer before beginning the design process, StyleSaint may redefine fashion design to become more of a pull (vs. push) experience.

Giving customers a greater say in the actual design of a product should do more than simply improve the relevance of the product.  This transformation of the company-customer interaction engenders loyalty and brand affinity.  People support what they help to create.  We are at the beginning of this trend and it will be critical for traditional retailers to understand this and determine strategies to open their tent to consumers, or risk being left behind by newcomers with highly relevant and engaging brands their consumers help to build.