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SDS 89 | Disruptive Products


The times are changing, and certain products made before do not fit anymore to what this world needs now. Talking about designing disruptive products is designer Tracy Hazzard who is known to help people create and launch this certain niche. Tracy believes that innovation does not necessarily have to be completely different; a few tweaks could go a long way and serve better. She talks about how we can disrupt with product design, giving us some great examples of what she has worked on in the past. Questioning data and challenging design thinking, Tracy has brought about the importance of actually listening to the market and the concept of intentional invention. She digs deeper into this while sharing some tips and insights on how and why disrupting product design could grow your company in the future.

Listen to the podcast here:

Designing Disruptive Products with Tracy Hazzard

My guest is Tracy Hazzard. She is a designer that helps people create and launch disruptive products. She’s got a history working with disruptive products starting off with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Many great designers, great artists have come out of RISD. She went onto the Wharton School to get a degree in marketing and new product development. She went into the world of textiles working for Milliken and ultimately ended up at Herman Miller. She has a practice of helping businesses launch and design their disruptive products to the marketplace. She’s also a fellow podcaster. She’s a columnist for Inc. and Forbes. Welcome, Tracy Hazzard.

Thank you for having me.

How do we disrupt with product design?

We get a little caught up in the idea that we to reinvent everything and to be honest with you, disruption can be small. It can be a little ripple that ends up a big wave. We think about that all the time because it’s about making small changes that have big results for whoever the users or the buyers might be. If we can do that then we are creating a bigger market for our businesses and our product sales, but we’re also creating a better outcome for our users. At the end of the day, it’s a human-centered approach.

Give me an example of a small change that made a big disruption.

We were designing office chairs and I can tell you that I designed 300 of them at the point at which I designed this particular one. In a few years, I designed 800 samples, different models. Some of them were not all that different but thinking about that, it’s like, “How are you going to be innovative?” Office chairs are designed predominantly by men for the majority of the time. I have a textile design degree, so I have a material focus. I started thinking about like, “How do women sit in chairs?” Women are the ones who are buying them or specifying them. How can I be more centered on doing something that helps them? When I came to do the research, I discovered that the ergonomics of the chair design was designed for a six-foot male. Essentially, the whole design of it doesn’t fit a whole part of the population and it probably doesn’t fit all the men either. When we’re designing for a higher percentage or a smaller percentage of the community, what they think is the bigger population because when it was originally set as the standard, most executives were men.

What they didn’t realize is that over time most chairs were bought for the rest of the staff, not the executives. We switched our model of it. One of the things that we did was we made the chair slightly smaller, but we gave it a bigger range. You could go higher and lower, a silly little technical thing that did nothing. It costs pennies more to put a different gas lift it. That was the simple change. The second change is we said, “Whether you’re an executive male or an executive woman, you are using a computer yourself. You don’t have a secretary.” For us not to put in secretarial-type. Things that allowed us to type, then that would be a mistake. We created these armrests that lift up so that you could scooch in closer to your desk. You could be closer to your keyboard because we were also more using laptops and not keyboard trays anymore. That was a difference of it as well.

The last thing we did was we said, “We want to still create a chair that fits most of the users and buyers,” but women are a little bit smaller than that. How can we take up the distance from the back of the chair because most women have lower back issues? More men have slightly upper back issues as we discovered and did some ergonomic research. We built a pillow on the back of the chair that slides up and down so it could fit in the upper part for men and the lower part for women. It takes up the distance, so we don’t sit on the edge of our chair, which causes more back pain. We now can sit back because that’s pushing us forward and giving us the leg distance we need.

Disruption can be small. It can be a little ripple that ends up a big wave. Click To Tweet

You’ve given me about half a dozen little tweaks that make all the difference in the world, from something that was originally designed for somebody smoking cigars and saying, “Come in here and take a memo.”

That’s where these things start. We don’t rethink that and that’s where I look at disruption as like, “Let’s disrupt the thinking of how this was designed,” and when we start to disrupt that thinking, we start to serve our audience better. We start focusing on them.

Along the way, we have to think about how people are using what we buy now because the context is different now. They’ll probably change again because we’ve made a crossover. More corporate data is accessed from a mobile phone than from any other device. We may have chairs that look more like gaming chairs in the future as we sit back versus leaning forward in our seating. This is the thought process that we have to do to create disruptive products that people go, “That’s what I was looking for.”

I’m a proponent of what is called design thinking, although I have heard that design thinking is an oxymoron. You can’t think your way to designing because it doesn’t work in that part of your brain. To use the actual accepted industry term of design thinking, that’s what we all need to be thinking about. Our datasets designed badly. They’re flawed from the beginning. That’s a question I ask when I get into discussions about AI all the time. Artificial intelligence or learning machines, are we starting with bad data? Data that was designed at the early 1900s that set our ergonomic standards that we’ve now accepted as a norm and it’s not the norm.

Garbage in, garbage out, a classic thing we learned back in the days of designing computer programs. We have to essentially challenge every piece of the narrative. That’s an interesting insight because you and I have consulting practice. How is it that we succeed at being a consultant? We ask the stupid questions.

We also have a broader view. This is something that helps and why it’s hard for an organization to question data internally, question process internally, and question how things are designed internally. The company that I was designing office chairs for. The company that was making the most money in the industry in office chairs had this old-school designer who was their head designer there. Who was going to jump up and question him? I came from the outside and worked for this company who’d never had a chair division before and they said, “Do what you want. We don’t know any better.” They let me look at that and to question all of that. That’s why it worked. Our chairs killed two of their chairs at Costco and removed them from the marketplace. It ended up with not just doing 20% better on its own, but it ended up taking over two placements. It became a $20 million a year seller for a few years straight.

That’s because you questioned the data and you challenged the design thinking. How else can we bring disruption to product design?

Everyone’s like, “I want to be innovative. I want us to have cutting edge things.” That’s not the goal and that’s where real disruption comes from. It comes deep from pain, deep from a need, and that need isn’t always internal. Although, some of it can be like 3D printing comes about because of pain and expense in prototyping. You get 3D printing coming out of it and now there’s a different future for things that we never imagined we could 3D print. I look at that as more of an evolving disruption. It’s not an instant disruption. It’s evolving over time because the pain is strong. It starts to find its traction quicker. It’s smaller steps all along the way until it’s big disruption and you come back and you find, “We aren’t making products the way we used to or we aren’t designing them the way we used to.”

It’s important to understand the psychology of the buyer. Crossing the chasm is an important concept to consider because of the fact that people at the bleeding edge of technology buy for one reason. The next group buys for completely different reasons and the next group buys for yet a completely different reason. This customer’s thinking strategy has to be from the group that we’re targeting versus a broad market. We have to think of the market in chunks because those leading-edge thinkers can take large leaps in what they bring into their life. They can shift their identity extremely rapidly because their identity is all about rapid change. As we move down the curve, it ends up that those people’s identities changed slower. Therefore, they can only change what they purchased at a much slower rate to the point where the first half of our market can change in aggregate at about 10% year over year.

The real issue is that a lot of times we design and continue to design and our process are all set on those early adopters. If you follow your early adopters, you’ll never get to the second half of your market properly. You won’t get there soon enough. That’s where we have to have a multipronged approach where of how we’re listening to people. You and I both know Betsy Westhafer. She was on your show. She does these consumer advisory boards and I love them because they’re getting at the information of where your customers are going. That’s in a more business to business model than it is in a business to consumer model or a C2C, even a straight consumer product retail-type model.

SDS 89 | Disruptive Products

Disruptive Products: We have to essentially challenge every piece of the narrative.


You’re having the communication about where they see the industry going? Where things are going? You’re taking that viewpoint and you’re filtering it through your organization into having the conversation that, “Here’s the future pain that they’re going to be faced with. How can we be the solution?” That’s a different model than, “Our customers told us to fix this. They want this.” When we’re only listening to those early adopters and we’re not listening to the players in the marketplace or where the future market we want. We don’t shift into keeping up with the changes in the marketplace, keeping up with what they need and want. We don’t help bridge that gap for those that are not on that early adopter side, but they could benefit tremendously from your products.

To our audience, I want you to get this inside your head when it comes to thinking about product design and innovation. You have multiple horizons, multiple markets. Target those markets and target those horizons intentionally versus accidentally. A lot of innovation is incremental.

We call it an intentional invention. That’s what we practice here. We are intentionally inventing how to reach the market whether it is the process by which something’s made so that we can make it mass customized or personalized. We can easily shift to those different markets and allow a smaller run of production because we are going to do different market fits. We are always thinking about that and intentionally inventing into that need.

Is there an approach to that you’re willing to share with our audience or is that a trade secret?

I’m going to call it intuition. The intuition is more than 100,000 hours of designing here that Tom and I have. When you do that, you have this situation in which you’re tapping into things you don’t even realize that you’re tapping into knowledge that you have. That’s where a lot of it comes from. A lot of it comes from listening to the market on an ongoing basis. Constantly understanding where the market is shifting and what they’re not getting and what they’re not happy about. You’re tapping into that. You’ll say, “These things haven’t been designed for women for a long time and pretty much every product category,” so I know that I should first look for that. It shortens the invention process and I’m intentionally looking for something because women buy or control 86% of consumer purchases out there. If that’s the case, then if you tap into something, you’re going to improve your sales instantly if you tap into something that they want to buy instead of the only option they have to buy.

How do we listen to the market on an ongoing basis to get real data versus confirmation bias, which is fairly typical? People put out surveys that essentially confirm what they think that they want to find versus surveys that discover what customers think. What’s your approach to listening to the market to figure out what design next?

I learned early on because I was working at Herman Miller and they were working on the Aeron chair, which is a famous mesh chair. I was on the material side of things. This is a material that no one had ever seen or used before in the marketplace. How can we research and understand whether or not this is going to be accepted into the marketplace? We’re a big fan of what we call market proof testing. That’s where we focus everything on. A lot of people will focus group test. We find that products that are truly innovative, that are truly going to disrupt, that are going to become amazingly big sellers. There’s no question that Aeron has been the top selling chair for many years. I still have mine that is 25 years old and it’s amazing. It still lasts that long too so it’s well-built on top of everything. It had been sad if they had listened to the focus group who told them, “No one’s going to buy that. It doesn’t have leather and cushions on it. It’s uncomfortable.”

That’s where we get caught up in getting this confirmation bias that we want them to accept this chair, so we lead them to accept it. It’s a mistake or we get the wrong audience who’s responding back to us. One of the things we did there is we ask questions in a different way. We try to find a way to sell them something that is similar to or has a feature that would be a baby step from where they are now. Can we put a more tech-savvy fabric on a regular chair and show them that first and get buying feedback on it? If we want to make a juicer blender, can we sell the juicer and the blender? Get the exact right audience and then talk to them about whether or not the opposite does it so, “Do the juicers blend and the blenders juice?” and have an actual conversation with people or real users. How can we facilitate these conversations with actual dollars exchange? I’m not a fan of the ones where you build a community and you start to have surveys and conversations with them. They tend to be early adopters and they tend to lead you wrong.

At the end of the day, life is about making small changes that have big results. Click To Tweet

What you’re telling me is that focus group testing doesn’t work well for innovative designs?

I’ve never seen it work well.

I’ve had that same experience. Focus groups have taken companies down the wrong way. What you’ve pointed out is the best possible approach, which is, are they willing to pay for it? We have some dollars we can exchange here. Will they put the money up? If the answer is yes, then we have a market test that’s going to work.

Fourteen out of fifteen home shopping network products fail in the marketplace. They treat it like it’s a market test for them and it usually fails. They’re usually wrong. Seven out of ten consumer products fail at retail. They’ve stopped doing that as often and now what they do is they are less innovative. They follow. When they see a trend happening, then they buy it. There are companies like Costco who require every single product to be tested before it goes in. They run a couple of container test on the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, wherever they feel is the strength for that product. Unless it turns at the right rate, then it’s not the right product for them. They’ll go through six or seven iterations of products before they say, “This is the one,” and then they put it in line after that. Even then, you still don’t get full in line. They’re taking caution in how they’re approaching it to be sure that it’s converting because their buyers are members. What members want to buy is all they care about. If it’s sold in Walmart, doesn’t mean it’s going to sell in Costco.

Why would anybody want to be in that particular business if fourteen out of fifteen are going to fail or seven out of ten retail releases fail? Why would anybody want to be in that business because the margins seemed pretty thin to begin with?

Part of it is that number has gotten worse over time because we no longer have in-house design staffs. We no longer have buyers who are merchants, who are experts in their product category. It’s gotten worse over time because of that.

We’ve lost a lot of marketing and merchandising expertise.

Design expertise and product depth too because that used to be in-house. If we look at the big corporations like Apple and companies who spend a lot on their research and development, they’re also spending a lot on making sure that they’re experts in their category. They have a team that is focused on that and stuff doesn’t transition from design without marketing, merchandising, and all of those things going hand in hand and working on the project together.

It is an entire acquisition package and the way that I view customer acquisition is the product. It is the marketing, it is the sales, it is the customer service that all have to play together to acquire and to maintain customers. If you don’t have that complete cycle, there are many places that it can blow up. What you’re telling me is the stats prove it.

SDS 89 | Disruptive Products

Disruptive Products: If you tap into something that customers want to buy instead of the only option they have to buy, then you’re going to improve your sales instantly.


I’m going to tell you that my stats are the opposite. I have nine out of ten successes and we have almost 250 products in the last decade. How do we do that is the question I get the most? The reality is that we are choosy about our clients because if my client doesn’t have that core understanding of their market and their channel, those two things matter to me. If they don’t even have a sales website, they haven’t tried to sell anything before. If they’re selling on Amazon, I understand Amazon. I don’t have to rethink and redesign for a different marketplace. If they’re selling in Costco, I know Costco. They have to be in one of the channels that I get and understand. They have to have their own channel that’s been up for a long time, has a lot of data available to me because I can start to mine that to design to it. That’s what makes us more successful. We’re creating our product to fit the market that already exists.

What you’re telling me is you have flipped the model on the head. The other model is broken because traditionally people think that the product design is the key. I’ve always felt that the market is the key because if I have a market that respects me and will have a conversation with me, I can sell them almost anything they buy.

The key is to selling something they need and they’re going to buy and use again and again. That’s my mission to create that, not exploit that market. Look at these digital marketers who are out there selling junk supplements and junk things that they’re selling out there. Junk science in some cases, we’ve got medical claims being made on books that are diet-based that have nothing to do with medicine and yet they’re selling tons of products. They’re outselling great programs, great experts who are deep in their fields. They’re outselling them on their books. How are you doing that? You’re doing that because you’re mining the data, you’ve developed a core connection to an audience that’s disenfranchised. That’s where podcasts have come into play and that’s why we utilize them so much.

Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about your podcast. You have three going on four. Tell me about your podcast.

We started a few years ago with WTFFF?! which is the geeky term for 3D printing fused filament fabrication. We hear about this disruptive design thing, but I didn’t believe that there was going to be a market for 3D printing in the consumer market. I don’t think consumers go, “I want to buy an injection-molded product.” Why would they go in and say, “I want to buy a 3D-printed product?” and yet all these 3D print marketplaces are jumping up and saying, “We’ve got 3D-print products. Come and buy them,” and nobody bought them.

Nobody cares about how you design and build it.

They care about what. That’s why we call it WTFFF?!. The what mattered more and no one invested in the what. No one invested in designing great things because they were like, “You can create anything you want.” That’s a mistake. I was like, “Do you know how many people buy what’s on the mannequin?” because that’s what they can see. They don’t feel creative in and of themselves. Most people do not. We started the podcast as a market test to see if we could draw an audience that would care about 3D printing. That would want to buy a great design from us and we could build a catalog and build this big company. Luckily, I didn’t build the company. I found out quickly nobody cared, but they cared about the information and education I could provide them.

We ended up with this passive income site where we sell them information. We sell advertising space and we do all of that. The website still exists and that 3D print podcast still exists. I have Product Launch Hazzards which is for the inventors and the product launchers of the world. It’s my exposure to the right things in the right order with the right resources because that’s where everybody goes wrong. The data that I have from many years of doing this is that it is a key to the process you use is more important. Getting that market testing happening early on and the people that I utilize to get my product successfully launched for my client, I believe in that as well. That’s not like other industrial designers out there. It’s not like other marketing firms and things like that.

It’s a different viewpoint. A lot of stuff is being pushed by a bunch of lawyers in the invention world, for instance, who are selling them patents that end up on the show. You might’ve heard them in the news like some of these are scams that are going on out there and that’s because inventors want that validation. They want that patent at the end of the day, but that’s no sign that your product will sell. Here’s an even worse statistic for you. Less than 2% of all patents issued by the Patent and Trademark Office here in the US are inventor’s money. Keep in mind Apple has hundreds of patents, thousands even, and they make a ton of money. That 2% shows you how bad it is.

When you are in people’s ear, they trust you. Click To Tweet

We have Feed Your Brand, which is why we started focusing on the marketing side because we found many product launchers that are doing things wrong. They weren’t building communities. They had passion products, but they didn’t have a way to communicate that to anyone. If you build it, they will come, they don’t. You have to draw them. That’s why we started that and Feed Your Brand is our marketing podcast for digital marketing and podcasters and video casters specifically. We believe that’s a faster and better way to create the content, but also to make a tighter connection with your community. When they’re in your ear, they trust you. Rather than no like and trust, I like to go trust, like, and then I want to know more and buy more.

You want to preview what your next podcast is or you want to hold off on that?

I’m feeling strongly that there are a lot of gaps and we’re talking about the AI problem of bad data and things like that. We’re seeing a lot of that in the influencer world. We have these influencers who are getting caught up in fake scams for a product they’re promoting and then they make a message and it turns out to be anti-Semitic. We look at these things and we think, “The influencer marketing world is broken. The digital marketers are putting out not great products.” There are flaws in the whole process of how this works. What can we do about it? I got invited to a cryptocurrency blockchain conference. This cryptocurrency stuff I don’t write about that. I’m curious but am I going to be interested in it? The founder of NASGO, they rang the bell at Nasdaq. He impressed me so much with his vision of the future. The fact we are at the fourth Industrial Revolution. We’re at the stage of where, “Wouldn’t it have been great if you had been able to understand what a website could do for you back in 1998?” I know what it was like. I was on the cutting edge of that and I was lucky and I knew how to mine it. I knew what to do with it and it’s now why my business is more advanced than others because I’ve kept up on that.

This is where we are on the blockchain. What he was talking about is this trust and distrust economy that we have going on doesn’t require us to have any investment in that. We don’t have to have a piece of that. We can work in a distributive model on the blockchain. That sent me out on this curious path of how do I create a blockchain? Let’s say I wanted to create a blockchain for my podcast business. How can I offer podcasters like you the opportunity to have advertisers who don’t have to trust that you say you have the place you have? That the system gives it to them they select them. Not just that, what if it also facilitates payment so that a big brand can write a $10,000 check and it gets distributed to all the podcasters who have promoted them in that process. That sounds like something I would like to build into my platform. How can I go about doing it? Would you know how hard it is to figure that out? How am I going to build that? Who’s going to help me? What’s going to happen? Who do I need? Who can I trust?

That’s where I said, “I’m going to do exactly the same thing we did back when we started our 3D print podcast. I’m going to start a new one so I can explore those topics, vet those people, and start to learn who’s in the know. Start to figure this out and take people along who might want to do the same thing.” We call it The New Trust Economy and my co-host’s name is Monika Proffitt. She has built her own blockchain in the real estate market, so she has some experience here and she’s going to explore the investment side of that. I’m going to explore that innovation side of what it can do for your company and how you can accomplish these things.

Many people have conflated blockchain and cryptocurrency and the reality is that cryptocurrency is one single application of blockchain.

The blockchain is hard to understand. It’s hard to grasp but technical. Cryptocurrency is digital money.

It’s a way of representing value in some form. The other aspect is that people call cryptocurrency an investment and there’s nothing farther from the truth. Do not use investment and cryptocurrency in the same sentence. If you want to be taken seriously, it’s a way of exchanging value, recognizing value.

Which is why I’m more fascinated with the tokenization side of blockchain because that makes sense.

SDS 89 | Disruptive Products

Disruptive Products: Nobody cares about how you design and build the product. What they care about is what it is.


Tokenization is the whole idea. If we want to assign that token to a value, that’s fine but tokenization is how we’re going to have frictionless types of transactions that allow us to do interesting things such as who has read this blog. When we get into that environment, things get interesting because you can be anonymous or you can be well-known who you are. Lots and lots of interesting opportunities to involve blockchain into product creation in the future.

Supply chain management is one of my big areas of exploration as well because we know how broken that is.

Make sure that you choose the podcast that Tracy does that’s going to best fit you. How does my audience get ahold of you if they want a conversation about some insights in product development, product launch, and go-to-market strategy?

I’m pretty much anywhere if you type Tracy Hazzard into Google. That’s the way I like to leave it because everybody has a preferred method. If you Google me, you’ll find me because I produce so much content that I’m always out there. This way you can join me on LinkedIn because that’s probably my preferred method of connecting with people. I love to have direct conversations so I am accessible to you. I answer my email and I read my LinkedIn messages, but this way people can get in touch with me any way they can. The only one I can say I definitely don’t do is Twitter.

Tracy, what a great conversation. I always enjoy my conversations with you and look forward to the next one.

Me too. I can’t wait.

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About Tracy Hazzard

SDS 89 | Disruptive Products
Tracy Hazzard, Inc. Columnist and CEO of Hazz Design have co-designed and developed 250+ products generating almost $2 Billion in revenue for her retail clients. Tracy has had products in all major e-commerce and mass-market retailers; office superstores; electronics boutiques; and wholesale clubs, including the best-selling mesh office chair at Costco. For over 25 years, she has worked with design-leading brands like Martha Stewart Living and Herman Miller and is an expert in a product, furniture, color, and materials.

Tracy develops products from around the world and travels to Asia frequently to inspect, certify and work with her clients’ factory suppliers. Along with her partner, Tom Hazzard, she holds over 37 utility and design patents with an unprecedented 86% commercialization rate. Their intentional invention process has been the key to keeping her clients’ knock-off proof and is the foundation for her new invite-only collaborative community built to rev up original retail product sales with the right things in the right order with the right resources.


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