HP sees profit in design

Over the next 18 months, Hewlett-Packard Co. will place increasing importance on product design as a way to gain more market share and to substantially cut product development and support costs.

The man leading these efforts is Sam Lucente, HP's vice president of design, a laid-back, soft-spoken guy with a ponytail. He joined HP three years ago after heading up his own design company and previous stints at Netscape and IBM where he was the lead designer on the vendor's ThinkPad 560 and 710 notebooks.

"The power of HP's portfolio is what really attracted me to the company," Lucente said. The vendor sells everything from consumer products such as digital cameras and televisions to high-end servers and storage used by businesses.

When he arrived at HP, Lucente discovered plenty of innovative design work going on, as befits a company whose tagline is "Invent." But it was mostly being done in isolation by individuals or small groups in their own cubicles. "People had no idea what those next to them were doing," he said.

While encountering some initial resistance, Lucente has worked at establishing a design practice within HP, where 200-plus designers can build on each other's discoveries and collaborate on technologies to benefit the entire company.

"HP has its roots as an engineering company, but as our products are commoditized, design plays a much bigger role," he said. "Three years ago it was an experiment, and now we see it driving a lot of profitability."

In the recent and not-so recent past, HP has been very inconsistent when it comes to product design, said Crawford Del Prete, senior vice president of research at IDC. What companies like Apple Computer have been very good at is "inviting the user in" with products that resemble each other and are operated in the same way.

For Lucente, design at HP has three main missions -- simplification, differentiation and innovation. He wants to create a single archetype for each HP product line, replacing a broad collection of parts with a single, consistent image.

"We're number one in laser printers, but we have too many styles," he said. "It's all about bonding with our customers; it's an emotional relationship."

Examining HP's hardware and software, Lucente was surprised by the vast amount of diversity around simple functionality such as power controls and help menus. Just standardizing on a single HP logo design has saved the company US$10 million in procurement costs, he estimated, given that the HP logo badge ships on hundreds of millions of products. HP has also consolidated some 50 different on-off buttons into a single design.

On the software side, HP is collapsing all the disparate 47 help menus in its OpenView systems management family of software into a single standard help menu. The vendor is also striving for consistency in the order of colors that signal systems alerts in OpenView, as well as having a common user interface for all its new management software. Having more design standards is helping HP more quickly integrate acquired technology, Lucente added.

Standardizing on common tools and materials gives HP a strategic advantage in lowering its costs. Having familiar menus can help cut down on the number of help desk calls the company has to field, according to IDC's Del Prete.

Tighter product integration might help HP stand out in the crowded consumer electronics market. For instance, the company could offer more complete integration among digital cameras, printers and its Snapfish online photo service Web site. On his part, Lucente is working to ensure that the way users move and organize their digital photos is similar on computers, televisions and digital kiosks.

HP has also come up with the Q navigation control system, a series of six buttons in the shape of a backwards-facing letter Q. As well as the common buttons for up, down, left and right and a central "OK" button, the Q includes a back button that provides the same function as the undo button on computers. Using the back button, users can reverse their steps as many times as they like, he said.

Josh Bernoff, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research was impressed by the Q. "I stood up and cheered when Sam showed it to me," he said. A well-designed product can result in "more rapid viral sales" as users tell their friends how cool a product is, he added.

HP is rolling out Q across its remote controls, printers and digital cameras. The company is also considering offering it on its personal digital assistants (PDAs), Lucente said.

HP developed the Q after completing intense ethnographic studies of 28 families around the world by sitting in their living rooms and observing how they used their electronic devices.

"HP is one of the only IT companies whose portfolio is so deep in consumer and enterprise products that it touches people at so many different points in their lives," IDC's Del Prete said. The end result of having a more similar look and feel across product lines may be more sales. If someone's already familiar and comfortable with the controls of an HP printer at work, they may also opt to buy an HP printer for use at home, Del Prete said.

Common design can help provide a comfort level to consumers. "The next time they go to a TV retailer and are faced with a sea of plasma and LCDs, they might stop for a second at the HP televisions because they know the controls," Del Prete said.

Del Prete believes that HP is ahead of competitors in the consumer and business arenas when it comes to thinking about incorporating "common design signature elements" across its entire product line.

It's hard to assess how the HP efforts will pay off at present, since common design elements aren't in all of the vendor's products yet. "It's bleeding into their product lines, you see splotches of it," Del Prete said. Within another one to one and a half years, those common design elements will become a key element of HP products, he added.

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Ben Ames and China Martens

IDG News Service
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