new-product-research-car-grilleI read an interesting article about design elements that no longer serve a purpose, but continue to exist. One of the most interesting one is the presence of a grille on electric cars. 
 
Conventional internal combustion engine cars need a grille because the engine needs air to flow over the radiator which cools the engine. No grille would mean the car would eventually overheat and stop working. Electric cars, however, don’t have a conventional radiator and don’t need the air flow. The grille is there because designers fear that the car would look too weird without it.  It is not clear from the article if that is just a hunch or if it has been tested.
   
It would be easy enough to test this out. We could simply show some pictures of cars and ask people which design they like best. A Max-Diff approach or an agile product like Idea Magnet™ (which uses our proprietary Bracket™ prioritization tool) could handle such a task. If the top choices were all pictures that did not include a grille we might conclude that this is the design we should use. There is a risk in this conclusion.
 
To really understand preference, we need to use a discrete choice conjoint. The exercise I envision would combine the pictures with other key features of the car (price, gas mileage, color…). We might include several pictures taken from different angles that highlight other design features (being careful to not have pictures that contradict each other…for example, one showing a spoiler on the back and another not). By mixing up these features we can determine how important each is to the purchase decision.  
It is possible that the results of the conjoint would indicate that people prefer not having a grille AND that the most popular models always include a grille. How?
 
Imagine a situation in which 80% of people prefer “no grille” and 20% prefer “grille”. The “no grille” people prefer it, but it is not the most important thing in their decision. They are more interested in gas mileage and car color than anything else. The “grille” folks, however, are very strong in their belief. They simply won’t buy a car if it doesn’t have one. As such, cars without a grille start with 20% of the market off limits. Cars with a grille, however, attract a good number of “no grille” consumers as well as those for whom it is non-negotiable.
 
Conjoint might also find that the size of the grille or alternatives to it can overcome even hard core “grille” loving consumers. Also worth consideration that preferences will change over time. For example, it isn’t hard to imagine that early automobiles (horseless carriages as they were called originally) had a place to hold a buggy whip (common on horse drawn carriages), but over time, consumers determined they were not necessary (or perhaps that is how the cup holder was born :)).
 
In short, conjoint is a critical tool to insure that new technologies have a chance to take hold.