Essays on user toolkits and smart products for product and service customization

Wang, Ning; Piller, Frank Thomas (Thesis advisor); Wang, Kanliang (Thesis advisor)

Aachen (2020)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2020


In order to meet the growing trend of more heterogeneous preferences and individual customer needs, the number of customized products and services offered in different industries has been increasing frequently in the last years. An important tool in this context is internet-based user configuration toolkits (UCT). These toolkits, also called configurators, assist an individual customer to elicit his/her preferences, specify product features, and identify his/her favourite design within a predefined solution space. A UCT-customization approach, however, restricts customers to conduct the product customization during the time of sales (PCTS), this means before the customized product is produced and put into use. Hence, it is important that consumers are really capable of identifying their demand and transferring it into the right configuration before they place their order. Therefore, the design and user interaction of UCTs to facilitate the customer self-customization process become very important - and has been subject of plenty of prior research. In the last years, a new alternative came up. Smart products (SP), products that contain sensors, microchips, embedded software, actuators, and are often connected to remote services (Rijsdijk & Hultink, 2003, 2009), offer an entirely new opportunity to provide customized products or services (Ostrom et al., 2015; Mani & Chouk, 2018). SPs collect, process, and produce information about the usage of a product and the usage context. This enables "product smartness" along five dimensions: autonomy, adaptability, multifunctionality, human-like interaction, and connectivity with other products (Rijsdijk & Hultink, 2009; Bechtold et al., 2014; Lee, 2019). Due to the embedded smartness, some SPs allows product adaptation or tailored service offerings according to individual customer’s needs in different usage contexts. SPs are able to respond to changing customer demands and expectations in the real usage context by adapting their functionalities or service content. For example, a smart sports device offers personalized training plans or training advice in real time based on the analysis of data collected about a user's sports activities. A smart light bulb can continuously adapt the brightness and colour of the lamp to a user’s (changing) preferences (mood, usage), but also the context or environment (weather, time, light conditions in a room). Different to the established UCT to achieve PCTS, SPs realize the concept of product customization during the usage stage (PCUS). My dissertation spans along both paradigms of delivering customized products and service to consumers, covering the established perspective of PCTS via UCTs and the novel perspective of PCUS via SPs. My three separate research papers focus on the parameters of the design of UCTs and SPs so that the perceived value and experience of customization is maximized from the customer’s viewpoint. Existing studies investigating UCTs design features have been mainly conducted in Western culture. But the growing individualization needs in Asian markets (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016) calls for an exploration of cultural factors in the design of UCTs. Therefore, Research Paper I explores whether and how cultural differences have an impact on the design of a UCT. It compares consumers’ responses to the UCT design features aimed to support customers in the customization process in China and Germany. Using a mixed-method approach (online survey and focus groups), the paper shows that consumers in China have a significant higher preference for features that allow them to "get feedback about an (initial) design" and to "share the (final) customized design through social media". Consumers in both countries are found to prefer "starting solutions created by professionals" which offer design inspirations at the phase of developing an initial idea. For eastern countries (e.g. China), the study also underlines the importance to provide social support and social interaction possibilities in UCT. The research inspires further investigation on the role of social influence on customization behaviour especially in markets with an Eastern culture. The novel concept of PCUS via SP extends our existing understanding of customization by online UCTs and offers many research opportunities. One of these fields is users’ perceptions of customization enabled by product smartness. In this context, Papers II and III create a better understanding how SPs can be developed and implemented successfully to provide a satisfying customization experience. Research Paper II analyses a new form of customization: autonomous customization (AC) enabled by a high level of product smartness (in particular, autonomy and adaptability). With AC, a SP can provide the customized solution without any explicit interaction or input of a user (Wang et al., 2018). While AC has advantages like reducing the customization effort, it also raises challenges such as due to its proactive, autonomous, and context aware nature, which may be perceived as intrusive or privacy-violating, hence decreasing user acceptance or even triggering customer resistance (Mani & Chouk, 2017, 2018). Paper II deals with the appropriate deployment of product smartness and the user’s role in this new customization concept to enhance the value of PCUS via SPs. Based on ten in-depth expert interviews and literature analysis from relevant streams, the paper proposes five design principles of SPs to overcome the negative perceptions of using product smartness for customization. It highlights that SPs should be designed to elicit user feelings of (being in) control. This can be achieved, for example, by offering tools for user’s intervention or reconfiguration, and by communicating progress and explaining the outcome to the user. Beyond these design factors to provide users control, the paper also suggests to allow users to customize and control the level of smartness of the product. Research Paper III addresses one of the design characteristics of SPs: the procedure adopted to provide customization. Two types of customization procedure, namely autonomous customization (AC) and supervised customization (SC), are compared using a scenario-based online survey with totally 380 participants. AC provides a customized outcome without any user dedication or participation. SC allows users either to self-select their favourite option among a set of (personalized) proposals (SC1) or to revise a customized outcome provided by the SP (SC2). The study reveals that SC compared to AC significantly increases the perceived control, but also the perceived complexity. Control perception has a more determining impact on the perceived outcome fit than perceived complexity. The results imply that enabling users’ feeling of control in the PCUS procedure is critical to enhance the customization value for customers. This research also suggests a way to give users a feeling of control without increasing their cognitive burden: allowing users to interrupt or intervene a SP’s actions and providing users the autonomy of exerting control, i.e. the freedom for an intervention. Overall, this dissertation bridges various research domains and contexts: It connects research on UCT in Western and Eastern cultures, and extends the established concept of PCTS with the novel concept of PCUS. The connection of mass customization and SPs broadens our existing understanding of customization into a new horizon. The thesis creates a first understanding of important design factors of SPs (product smartness) to overcome potential negative perceptions and improve consumer’s satisfaction with customized product/services delivered by SPs.


  • Chair of Technology and Innovation Management (TIM) [812710]