Preston Smith's Corner

Book Review: Creating Breakthrough Products: Innovation from Product Planning to Program Approval

Jonathan Cagan and Craig M. Vogel; Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002, 302 + xxxii pages, US$ 29.00

Product development pundits and researchers alike lament the paucity of truly innovative products and our tendency to develop me-too products to prop up sagging markets and meet the competition. This is a book about discovering and designing products to counter the me-too product. Written by a professor of mechanical engineering and a professor of industrial design, it focuses on processes and tools to integrate technology with style to satisfy newfound needs of customers.

The authors claim this book applies to all types of consumer and industrial products as well as services, but I found it most pertinent to products that involve clear human interaction. For example, it applies to the keyboard and mouse of a computer, but not to developing its microprocessor or hard drive. They provide many interesting case studies from industry, for both consumer and industrial products, but I found their service industry case studies, such as Starbucks and United Parcel Service, to be unconvincing.

Although Cagan and Vogel mention corporate strategy as a precursor activity, their presumption is that one develops profitable new products by scanning for unmet opportunities in the marketplace, not through portfolio planning or strategic alignment. They also presume that a firm devotes significant effort to developing breakthrough products. In my experience, most companies are totally consumed by correcting products already in the field, filling in gaps in their product lines, responding to customer requests, and countering competitive offerings. For them, it will be a stretch to assign resources to discovering and developing a radically new product.

The basic precept of this book is that “style” and “technology” combine to create “value,” which distinguishes a truly breakthrough product. The authors employ a two-by-two matrix with style on one axis and technology on the other, and they emphasize the Upper Right (quadrant), which they claim is the only place where a new product can generate value. In the authors’ view, all of these axes are binary: you either have style, technology, or value or you don’t. I found that the assignment of a specific product to a certain quadrant seemed a bit arbitrary, and I wondered why the particular axes of style and technology had been chosen. I suspect that it has something to do with the design and engineering disciplines of the two authors. Nevertheless, this construct provides a valuable framework for the book.

Style refers to the sensory and ergonomic elements of a product. It determines how well the product connects with the lifestyle of those in the target market. Technology refers to the functionality that enables the product to operate. It can include mechanical, electrical, chemical, or software, and it includes materials and manufacturing choices as well. Finally, value is “the level of effect that people personally expect from products and services, represented through lifestyle impact, enabling features, and ergonomics, which together result in a useful, usable, and desirable product.” (Page 57) Useful means that the product satisfies a human need and is cost-effective, usable relates to ease of use, and desirable means that its attributes combine to make people want to own it.

The heart of the book is Chapters 5–7. Chapter 5 describes their process, Chapter 6, the teams and organization needed to execute the process, and Chapter 7, their customer-understanding technique. The process starts with an ongoing scan of what they call SET factors: Social trends, Economic forces, and Technical advances, which open opportunities for new products. For example, the retro trend (social), ample disposable income (economic), and new materials and processes (technology) opened an opportunity that Mazda capitalized on with its Miata sports car. SET factors change constantly, so they can lead to new insights that were not apparent before. Similarly, changing SET factors explain how products go out of fashion and even how a product can appear before its time.

The next step is to detect in the SET factors some Product Opportunity Gaps. These POGs are a discrepancy between what is currently available on the market and what the SET factors suggest. Discovering POGs is part science and part art. When found, they lead to product opportunities.

Cagan and Vogel’s next step is what they call value opportunity analysis, in which they assess each opportunity on 26 criteria in seven categories. For instance, one category is ergonomics, and its three criteria are comfort, safety, and ease of use. They rate each criterion subjectively as high medium, low, or none. A value opportunity chart then gives an overall opportunity picture for a product concept. By going through the same exercise for an existing product, one can see how great an advance the new opportunity offers. This value opportunity analysis appears to be an excellent tool for comparing opportunities by decomposing them into assessable attributes. However, the authors caution that a product’s value is perceived by the user as a whole in a Gestalt sense, so that one must be careful with this kind of analysis.

The book emphasizes that all of this paperwork should be supplemented by early and frequent prototyping. In one case, it illustrates about 75 prototypes used to study shape alternatives for the handle of a tool (Fig. 3.6).

As expected, the chapter on teams (Chapter 6) emphasizes the need for close cross-functional collaboration. Cagan and Vogel consider (industrial) design, engineering, and marketing to be the principal participants. They exclude manufacturing, sourcing, finance, and such functions because they are needed only after product feasibility is demonstrated. One useful tool they provide is a part differentiation matrix. Somewhat like the matrix described earlier, this two-by-two array divides the parts or subassemblies of a product according to whether they are high or low complexity and whether they have primary or secondary lifestyle impact. These distinctions allow developers to plan the type of team that must be assigned to each part or subassembly. For example, the transmission and brakes of an automobile are rated high in complexity but low in lifestyle impact, which means that they can be safely designed by engineering with little design involvement. Parts with low complexity and high lifestyle impact, such as the wheels and grill, can be handled primarily by design. Ones rated high in both complexity and lifestyle impact—the sound system and body panels, for instance—require a true cross-functional team for effective collaboration. Finally, one scoring low on both axes, such as tires and ignition system, are commodities that may be sourced. Notice that in contrast with other authors, who generally say that the more cross-functional a team is the better, Cagan and Vogel focus cross-functionality where it will do the most good.

Chapter 7—on understanding user needs—is the foundation of the book and should really appear earlier. The authors state, “The result of all this [user] research is a growing understanding of the user experience, the emotion surrounding the experience, the product attributes that enable the emotion, and realization of those attributes through physical design.” (Page 124) To really understand the user, Cagan and Vogel recommend in-depth ethnographic techniques rather than broad quantitative or statistical methods. The initial ethnographic methods then move into scenario development, in which the team describes in depth a typical user in the target environment and how lack of the envisioned product makes his or her life less satisfying. For instance, they describe Ron, a contractor who has two difficulties in using his pick-up truck at a job site: 1) the tailgate is an inadequate work surface, and 2) he cannot get easy access to tools in the bed of his truck. Unfortunately, the authors do not mention alternative in-depth means of user research, such as an essentially similar technique developed for software products by Alan Cooper [1] or von Hippel’s lead user technique [2], which is aimed specifically at understanding the users of new-to-the-world products. Another break from conventional practice is that they quite consistently mention fulfilling the “needs, wants, and desires” of users, whereas most contemporary voice-of-the-customer techniques emphasize that one should focus on needs, because wants and desires are more transitory.

A strong feature of the book is dozens of actual product examples illustrating the points being made. Four examples—a potato peeler, a mobile radio, a lift truck for warehouse stores, and Starbucks—run throughout the early chapters. Chapter 8 is devoted to various examples, and Chapter 9 focuses on automotive case studies, since automobiles, trucks, and their accessories are a perfect application of these techniques. Unfortunately, with the exception of a radio aimed at rural China, all of these examples are narrowly centered on the United States.

In summary, this book clearly demonstrates—for the types of products to which it applies—the claim made in its foreword: “If a product does not connect with the values of the customer, it will fail. It is not just the utility of a product that’s important. It’s the emotional component—the experience people have with it and the values they want expressed by it—that’s key.” (Page xix)

Preston G. Smith, CMC
New Product Dynamics


1. Cooper, A. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Indianapolis, IN: SAMS, 1999 (reviewed in JPIM January 2001).
2. von Hippel, E, Thomke, S, Sonnack, M. Creating breakthroughs at 3M, Harvard Business Review 1999;77(5):47–56.

Published in Journal of Product Innovation Management, November 2002, pp. 461-463

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