Doctor of Philosophy
Austin, Robert D.
Digital technology is an important enabler of product innovation. While information systems (IS) researchers have studied the role of digital technology in innovating product function and aesthetics, its impact on innovating product meaning has received considerably less attention. Evidence suggests that shifts in product meaning can significantly influence buying behaviour. Despite the importance of meaning innovation, the scarcity of IS research on the topic has left it undertheorized. This thesis builds on existing design and management theories to advance the understanding of how designers use digital technology to innovate product meaning. Comparative case studies in two electric vehicle (EV) companies are used to build the theory describing three mechanisms for effecting meaning innovation: recombinant meaning making uses digital technology to change a product’s functions or aesthetics in a way that may lead users to perceive new meaning; associative meaning making uses digital technology to present the product in a way that may lead users to perceive new meaning; bricolaging meaning making uses digital technology to collect user feedback and selectively incorporating this to repropose meaning. These mechanisms operate within three different patterns of meaning in use: spontaneous emergence, purposeful creation, and aspirational guidance. These mechanisms and patterns of meaning innovation provide new perspectives on the role of digital technology in product design and innovation. By applying these mechanisms and patterns, companies can potentially create more commercially successful products, create them more often, and extend product life cycles.
Summary for Lay Audience
Technological innovations have significantly impacted our lives, as innovative products like electric vehicles with self-driving technology revolutionize our daily experiences. Digital technology plays a crucial role in facilitating product innovation, not only by enhancing products’ functions and aesthetics but also by redefining their meaning and purpose for users. Despite substantial research on how digital technology helps make products better in terms of functions and aesthetics, scholars have not fully addressed how digital technology can be used to innovate product meaning.
Innovating meaning with digital technology can be a profitable strategy for companies, as it allows them to redefine a product’s meaning and gain a competitive advantage, even without cutting-edge technology to improve functions or aesthetics. However, innovating meaning with digital technology poses challenges, and numerous innovation projects fail. Consumers may not always embrace the innovative meaning proposed by designers.
My PhD thesis, titled “Innovating Product Meaning with Digital Technology: Case Studies in Electric Vehicles,” addresses this gap. Through comparative case studies of two electric vehicle companies, I investigate how designers use digital technology to innovate meaning. I interviewed managers, designers, and engineers, observed meetings, visited factories and experience centres, and reviewed archived documents. In doing so, I identify three ways of innovating meaning with digital technology: recombinant, associative, and bricolaging meaning making. Recombinant meaning making involves altering a product’s functions or aesthetics to propose an innovative meaning, while associative meaning making involves presenting the product in a new way to propose an innovative meaning. Bricolaging meaning making involves collecting and selectively incorporating user feedback to repropose innovative meaning.
These insights afford companies the valuable opportunity to redefine user needs through the creation of innovative products. By leading, rather than following, companies can redefine product meaning in ways users themselves might not have anticipated or articulated. This will ultimately lead to a future of innovative, digitally supported products that everyone can enjoy.
Gu, Haoyue, "Innovating Product Meaning with Digital Technology: Case Studies in Electric Vehicles" (2023). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9336.
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