People who seek feedback on the products they design deviate a lot on order to be conformist. The end result is unsatisfactory to them.

Over the past decade, companies have begun using online ordering capabilities to develop a powerful marketing tool — “mass customisation” systems that let customers design their own products. For example, Nike, Lego, Threadless, Porsche and Ford all give consumers the ability to choose colours and other options. Research shows that consumers value self-created products more than ready-made ones. (As a result, some companies charge more for do-it-yourself designs.) Companies have recently started encouraging consumers to use social media to “share” prototypes of their self-designed products with friends before finalising their choices.

Our research examines the effects of social media sharing on mass customisation. How does feedback affect a consumer’s design choices? How does it affect his satisfaction with the end product?

We conducted a study in collaboration with a large European automaker whose customers can specify features in 14 different categories, including lighting, interior décor and seating (each category offers eight options, on average).

We obtained data on 149 consumers who had designed a car and asked a social media friend for feedback before finalising the order. We also studied 684 customers who had designed a car without getting any feedback.

We found that the customers who got feedback tended to modify their configurations in order to conform to it, with those whose initial designs reflected relatively extreme choices (unusual colours, for example) making the biggest modifications. Overall, the cars designed by customers who received feedback were less distinctive than the cars designed by customers who didn’t.

To better understand these field results, we conducted two experiments using an online jewellery-designing tool and a web-based community platform we created. In the first experiment, we asked 1,092 women to design a pair of earrings, giving them feedback purportedly from another community member before they submitted a final design.

Their designs changed far more between the initial and final stages than those of a control group whose members got no feedback. And the women who got feedback were more likely than the others to have trouble finalising the design and less likely to be satisfied with the results.

In a follow-up experiment involving 46 women, we produced and gave them the earrings they had designed and called them three weeks later with an offer to buy the jewellery back.

We found that, on average, the women who’d received feedback on their designs had worn their earrings only a third as often as the other subjects had and were willing to sell them back for just 14 Swiss francs ($14.64); members of the control group wanted 40 francs for theirs.

Social media sharing can play an important role in increasing brand awareness, but marketers should use caution when incorporating sharing features into mass customisation programmes.

Our results show that feedback dampens creativity, reduces originality and diminishes customer satisfaction. Companies that do include sharing features in a DIY system should, at a minimum, closely monitor how the sharing affects consumer choices and be on the alert for downsides.

Christian Hildebrand is a project leader, and Andreas Herrmann is the director at the Center for Customer Insight at the University of St.Gallen, in Switzerland. Gerald Häubl

is a professor at the

University of Alberta and

the University of St.Gallen.

Jan R. Landwehr is a

professor at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

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