Seasoned desk jockeys like us want--and need--office furniture that's not only innovative and beautiful, but also practical and comfortable. For Allsteel, the 101-year-old company that invented the lateral file in 1967, pursuing form at the expense of function is anathema.

How do we know? Build got a privileged peek at Allsteel's product-development process not long ago. One key to that process, we learned, is the solicitation and integration of feedback from both the design community and the customers who might buy or use the furniture: actual office workers and the property developers, entrepreneurs, and landlords who make purchasing decisions.

In early October, two Allsteel employees--D.J. Heil, director of new product management, and Darren Keele, product manager--visited Workbar, a communal workspace in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to gather feedback on new product ideas. Two members of the Build team were among those in attendance.

Allsteel's feedback process, which it calls a "needs assessment," comprises five steps that can help any company improve how it develops or tests new products.

1. Never forget this simple question: Can our (prospective) customer pay for this?
Yes, it's important to think about whether your new product solves a customer problem. But your solution only matters if (a) your customers can afford it, and (b) you can profit from it, especially at the beginning, when the cost of making it will be at its highest.

2. Cultivate a network of feedback providers.
A recent Allsteel feedback session solicited input 152 architects and designers, who received a gift card--and a glimpse at the company's inner workings--for their trouble. The company also spoke with 26 end users (facility managers and office workers), 6 furniture dealers, 4 real estate project managers, and 15 other people who were not compensated. Allsteel attracts these participants by:

• Providing a clear definition of what it wants to achieve through their feedback.
• Not fatiguing them with repeat requests.
• Scheduling the session one month in advance.
• Making a show out of listening to them (by taking notes and asking follow-up questions).
• Exposing participants to the problem you're potentially solving for them.

To demonstrate on the final point, let's say Allsteel is soliciting feedback from a facilities manager. Let her know "that the attrition rate for facilities managers is 40 percent over a three-year period," Heil says. A statistic like this reminds her that she has skin in the game; therefore, it behooves her to take actions that demonstrably improve the facilities. Likewise, if the prospective feedback giver is an HR professional, you'd want to make sure that he is aware of how new products can prevent or reduce potential OSHA liabilities.

Courting the feedback of non-designers has been vital to Allsteel's continued success. During one recent needs assessment, an opinionated group of facilities managers persuaded the company to change the design of a forthcoming line of chairs to make them easier to stack and nest, for the sake of better storage and movement.

3. Grade your feedback providers.
Allsteel has four attributes on which it grades the quality of feedback from each session participant: content of comments, ability to appraise a product's potential value, open mindedness to new ideas, and whether he/she represents a client base it wants to attract. You're grading their input because you'll want to return to the top-rated providers the next time you seek opinions.

4. Develop a visual method for blending qualitative and quantitative feedback.
At its offices in Aurora, Illinois, Allsteel posts qualitative commentary next to photos of the products its developing on a 300- to 400-square-foot mobile wall. Keefe and Heil refer to this wall as "the blender."


Meanwhile, this page from an Allsteel survey illustrates how the company collects qualitative and quantitative feedback at the same time:


5. Find out how potential customers would actually use the products if they had them.
Allsteel supplies diagrams of where its new products might fit into an office's layout. It asks feedback providers to populate their floor plans with the new products--to get a sense of where, in the office, they might put them¬--and to describe the type of work they'd do in these spaces. In addition, Allsteel asks basic, expected questions about a new design, such as: Will you get space savings? Will more people be able to work comfortably in your office? Etc.