The Wonder Years
When I was eight years old, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation, I told her that I wanted to be an inventor. Inventors, I reasoned, were people that saw possibilities that others did not, created things that nobody had yet experienced, and their inventions made everyone’s life better (and made the inventor famous). I understood from school that we lived in a unique time; science was progressing at an increasing rate, and as we continued to discover the laws of science – fundamental truths about the universe just waiting to be harvested and applied by mankind – the possibilities seemed endless. The station wagons, microwave ovens, and houses of the day would, no doubt, be replaced in the relatively near future by flying cars, food replicators, and space condos (yes, I loved watching the Jetsons). I wanted to be part of making that happen. As I grew into my pre-teen years, this sense of the advancement of technology and the inevitable improvement of the human condition were reinforced by the joy that I got from some of my favorite possessions: a clear blue Plexiglass Sears skateboard, a Walkman radio, and Merlin, an early success in the handheld electronic game market.
A look in the mirror
My dream of becoming an inventor was rekindled in my early teen years after I took a then-popular personality assessment tool, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). My father was a US diplomat and, given the stresses of relatively frequent moves abroad, the U.S. State Department provided the MBTI to diplomatic families as a tool to provide personal insights to help families cope and adapt. Though secondary to its purpose, some books about the MBTI also used the self-assessment as a way to categorize people into one of sixteen personality-based career types; I was identified as an ‘inventor/engineer’. What most impressed me about the self-assessment experience, however, was that a relatively brief, multiple-choice test could do such a good job of identifying my personality. Career type aside, I read the description of my personality type, the ‘INTP’ with amazement. The short chapter described me with uncanny specificity: my love of ideas, my skepticism towards authority and hierarchy, my preference for a few close friends instead of a large network of acquaintances, my comfort with abstract ideas, and the struggle I felt at times making decisions in a world of infinite possibilities.
Here was a simple survey that seemed to “get” me, certainly better than I thought anybody else did, and in some ways even better than I understood myself. And, it was certainly reassuring to know that there were other people out there like me. Even better in some ways, beyond flattering me with my supposed strengths, it also identified my weaknesses; my occasional mistrust of others, my discomfort with sharing my feelings, among others. Understanding these weaknesses, I reasoned, was a first step in making some changes that, presumably, would make me more successful and happy. To a teen, especially one enamored with technology, products, and their promises of better living, this was an epiphany. Maybe my own happiness – my assumed primary goal at the time – was at least somewhat dependent on how well I understood myself and others, and how I used that insight to better adapt to the world around me. And somehow, almost magically, a multiple-choice survey could give me that insight and focus my attention on specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were largely in my control.
So, when it came time a few years later to go to college and pick a major, I chose Tufts University, one of the few schools at the time where I could simultaneously complete degrees in both engineering and psychology. On campus, people often asked why I was pursuing such different degrees. What could the worlds of products and people have to do with one another? I didn’t have much of an answer at the time. I just thought they were both really interesting. I didn’t have a grand understanding or vision. Although I likely didn’t think of it in these terms, in hindsight I’d like to believe that at some level I recognized that both disciplines, in their own ways, had the potential to make my life and other people’s lives better. But, honestly, I didn’t think that much about it and soon my focus instead shifted to getting a job and some career direction.
Seeing behind the curtain
Realizing that nobody hires college graduates to be inventors (and not having an idea worthy of the risk of trying something on my own at that point), my job search quickly turned to finding something that at least related to either product development or technology. After a false start as an Information Technology consultant (untying other people’s technical knots), and an MBA at the University of Virginia to help me reset my career direction, I was hired to be a product manager for the power tool division of Black & Decker in Baltimore, Maryland. It was my first job in new product development which, I realized, was the perfect marriage of my dual interests in products and people. The job of the product manager, as I understood it, was to guide the development of new products that meet people’s needs better than current options in the market. And, of course, they had to make a profit. At first, I loved it. I could “talk shop” with the engineers while working with the marketing research firms that we hired to get inside our target consumers’ heads. I was in the middle of it all, and I did well for some time, moving on to a similar role in the then-young personal computer industry, with a promotion to VP of Product Development and Marketing at a small PC audio company (now the audio division of Logitech). Then followed several years of consulting work with a firm that specialized in helping companies in a variety of industries – from packaged goods to high technology – measure and improve their product development processes. On the surface of it, I should have been thrilled and grateful to have found a career path that exploited my interests and education.
Instead, I grew weary and somewhat disillusioned. The promise of new products making people’s lives better was much more nuanced and complicated than I had expected. I spent a lot of time studying people informally and through my various professional lenses. My initial focus on trying to understand consumers’ product needs (and their desires, and dreams) over time became more of a socio-cultural study of the ways in which people related to the marketplace and the material world for better or – the more that I observed and reflected – for worse. A few things that I noticed:
- The promises that companies and their brands and products make are sometimes not true, and usually not complete
- And, even when they are, our own expectations about how we will benefit from the things we consume and how they will affect our well-being are often exaggerated – sometimes greatly so.
- Businesses are typically focused on the short term, with a bias towards optimizing the initial stage of consumption – acquisition (aka “selling stuff’)
- What should matter equally, or most, to consumers is the longer-term; beyond what something will cost, what benefits will it realistically provide over time and at what cost (e.g., money and time)
- Companies exist to make a profit, and the vast majority are legally obligated to focus on profit alone
- Making people’s lives better is a good but not essential way to make a profit; it’s largely assumed that people will make rational, reasoned choices and that companies have no obligation or responsibility to promote consumer welfare (let alone worry about the various environmental and social impacts of production and consumption). And, it wouldn’t make sense to expect companies to take on all the responsibility; what is good for one consumer in a given situation may not be good for another.
There is also ample evidence that from a consumer perspective, our current system is not yet living up to its potential or its promise – at least in developed economies, like the US. While our individual experiences are unique, the overall consumer story is not a good one:
- We are consuming more than ever
- Compared to 1975, our homes are 38% larger, despite having fewer people living in the same household (Worldwatch); since the 50s, our homes have actually doubled in size (more furniture to buy, higher energy costs, more time cleaning…)
- We are buying way more stuff; and despite our bigger homes, we still need more places to store things (the storage unit business has been booming over the last decade)
- 65% of American adults are overweight or obese (Worldwatch)
- But it doesn’t look like we are any better off
- Despite a growing economy, we are working more, not less; gains in productivity have been shared unequally and/or spent on greater consumption
- Most of the stuff we acquire is not really of value to us (the majority of it is trashed, stored, or ignored within 6 months of purchase)
- Self-reported measures of well-being in the US have been flat since the 1950s
- 61% of American credit card users carry a monthly balance, averaging $12,000 at 16% interest (Worldwatch)
- 1 in 5 Americans suffers from mental illness, such as anxiety or depression – an all-time high (NAMI), likely in part a reflection of the financial stress and social isolation of our current economy and reliance on technology (and this is before COVID hit)
- The world’s resources, which may seem abundant depending on where you live and the information you have, are limited
- The emerging global middle class is projected to grow from 1.9B in 2009 to 4.9B in 2030 (Kharas, 2010)
- If everyone on the earth consumed like Americans, we would need 4x worth of earth’s resources to meet global demands (Footprintnetwork)
- And then there are the issues about our ‘natural capital,’ i.e., our shared ‘stocks’ of nature, biodiversity, and atmosphere that are being harmed by product and consumption-based pollution and climate change
Just to be fair and clear, I also believe that:
- A lot of the things that we spend money on, both products and services, really do materially improve our lives
- This depends, however, on consumers making good choices for themselves about what, when, where, and how to consume (and, of course, how much)
- There are a lot of really good people in really good companies (and some great ones, too)
- But the vast majority of employees have limited visibility into the extremely complex and highly interdependent global industry “value chains” of resource extraction, production, usage and disposal, and a limited understanding of how their products and services really affect people’s lives, for better or worse, over the typical product lifecycle
- Capitalism is the best economic system available today; it provides the incentives for the investments that drive innovation and production that are responsible for our current quality of life (imperfect as it is) and are also largely responsible for a dramatic decrease in global poverty and disease over the last 100 years
- Capitalism is, however, an overall economic system, not a fixed set of rules; it has been evolving for decades, and will continue to do so for better, or for worse
- We currently violate many of the tenets of “free market capitalism;” truly free markets would consist of many more, smaller businesses, and wouldn’t be dominated by massive, global corporations that typically thwart innovation and hurt local communities (culturally, ecologically, etc.)
- We need a new version of capitalism – one that values all human welfare and the environment, with profit as a means and measure, not the goal
In Pursuit of (others’) Wisdom
So, if the fruits of our inventive labor can improve our lives, and if most people that work in companies are ‘good people’ — people with similar values and interests as the rest of us — and if capitalism is the best system available today, then what is going on? That’s a question (or series of questions, really) that I have been working on in various ways over the last two decades. After over a decade in industry, I left my consulting job on the East coast with my wife and two (now three) sons to get a mid-career PhD in Consumer Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. I graduated in 2008 and since then have been on the faculty at William & Mary’s Business School, splitting my time between my research and teaching.
My research in many ways has mirrored my dual interests in products and people, with publications focusing on product design and others focusing on consumer choice that explicitly considers environmental and social issues as well. My teaching initially focused on introductory courses in Marketing and Marketing Research. Over time, I shifted towards new courses in Customer Insights for Innovation and Sustainability Inspired Innovation & Design that I teach in a studio-like classroom. My students and I focus on consumers, the world of designed and built products and services, and their interaction — exploring how we can build better products and services that are technically feasible, profitable, and that genuinely add value to people’s lives. I do think there is a moral imperative for those of us in academia to help students fully consider the real complexity of business in the 21st century, and to consider the different sides of the many different issues involved. And, there are many compelling business reasons to do so as well.
I’m inspired by my students. They share my belief that while we are fortunate to live in these times and in a free society, things can be much better. My students and their generation can have a profoundly positive effect on the products and services that are designed and built next, and on the emerging economy that they will contribute to. In the meantime, however, the current marketplace is a complicated mixed bag that most of us need some help to navigate. I am convinced that regardless of how wise a consumer you think you already are, each of us has different strengths and weaknesses that can be readily identified. Once identified, reassured in continuing to do what we already do well, we can focus specifically on the ways in which we can improve our approach to consumption. We can become wiser consumers. My hope is that my work will help you do that in a way that best suits your needs and long-term interests and help you pursue more fully what you really value in your life and the lives of others that you care about.