Do consumers want to design unique products on the internet?

A study of the online Virtual Community of and their attitudes to Mass Customisation, Mass Production and Collaborative Design.

In Dec 2005 I started a project to survey the community of Threadless. I’d been a big Threadless fan for a year or so and I loved how its business model helped reduced the risk of manufacturing and offered involvement, this was even with the help of When I discovered the concept of Mass Customisation I saw an opportunity to propose that user involvement was more important than the creation of a unique product, something I felt the Mass Customisation literature over-emphasised.

The research questions were:

1. How much collaboration is there between designers and the rest of community prior to submitting designs?

2. What factors stop members submitting designs?

3. What is it that keeps community members visiting and interacting with Threadless and its VC?

4. Does this business model support aggregation of user requirements? If so, how?

5. Sawhney and Prandelli (2000) believe that “a business model that combines communities into product development empowers peripheral players”, how much evidence of this can seen at Threadless?

6. Why would consumer would buy a limited product from Threadless when rival companies can offer them the chance to design a unique product.

The conclusions in brief were:

1. Respondents placed “innovative designs” over involvement in the design process as the key reason they buy from Threadless. They were willing to trade off uniqueness in exchange for recieving product of a higher standard that they would have been able to produce.

2. The second key finding observed in the participant observation was the willingness of the VC to support each other and offer help and advice throughout the design process. This support can help overcome the problems that customers have during the MC process and reduce the support the manufacturer has to provide.

3. The final conclusion drawn from this research is that while technology is cited as removing communication barriers between manufacturers and customers, making it easier to receive want information, it is also suggested that this same technology can facilitate the sharing of want information amongst customers.

4. Threadless has developed a mechanism to aggregate this information and let its customers decide collaboratively the products which best meet their aggregated needs. It’s proposed that this reduces the current disconnect between a manufacturers desire for production efficiency and reliable demand and a customers desire for involvement and unique (or at least limited) products. This may have implications for manufacturers trying fruitlessly to offer the uniqueness that the MC literature proclaims customers want, when an equally effective albeit less radical approach may be available.