Engaging Customers to Help with Product Design

June 15, 2006

Muji—a well-known retail brand in Japan—has integrated customer input and suggestions into its core business operations. Customers know the company listens, so they flood the company with suggestions. As Muji's online business grew, so did the engagement of its customer community. Muji encourages customers to submit product design ideas and to comment and vote on each others' ideas. Muji also recruits product testers and co-designers from its vibrant customer community.


Muji is a well-known and respected specialty Japanese retail chain that sells household goods, apparel, and food products of its own unique design. Muji’s “no frills” products have captured the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of its target customers--baby boomers and their kids--in Japan and in Europe. These are products that are simple in design, simply packaged, low cost, and produced to be energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Muji’s signature products include stationery, housewares, clothing, and food, as well as a newer line of baby products (for the kids’ kids/boomers’ grandkids).

The Muji Brand: No Frills, Simple Design

Fiona Rattray, a style columnist for the London Observer, described the origin of the Muji brand this way: “When Muji first began (in 1979)--as Mujirushi (no brand) Ryohin (quality goods)--it was as a no-frills label within the established Seiyu supermarket chain (though the two have long since parted). Wrapped in clear cellophane, with labels of plain brown paper and red writing, the original range focused on ways to save the customer money.

At the time, for example, consumers at other shops were only being offered intact, perfect slices of dried shiitake mushrooms--the remainder (the ends) was simply thrown away. Muji reasoned that they tasted the same whole or broken, so it sold those bits as well. Its slogan was ‘lower priced for a reason.’ Later, it sold U-shaped spaghetti--made from the join that is cut off to make it straight.”[1] That was the humble beginning of a brand icon that became a magnet for people who like simple, well-designed, functional goods.

The Muji brand became so successful that the Muji division was incorporated in 1989 as its own corporate entity, under the name Ryohin Keikaku. Muji opened its first store in 1983 in Tokyo. Muji products are now sold in 141 Muji direct and 144 Muji licensed retail stores in Japan, as well as in “Com Kiosks” at train stations. Muji sells through direct subsidiaries in the U.K. (15 stores), France (6 stores), Italy (1), Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea, and through licensed stores in Ireland and Scandinavia. In the United States, you can find a few Muji products at the Museum of Fine Arts (MOMA) store in New York.

Brand Extensions. Muji also runs summer campsites where families can camp, fish, and play using Muji products. The company now also offers Muji cafés, Muji meals, Muji florists, and Muji furniture, as well as complete Muji-designed homes.

Distinctive Muji Design. Minimalist design is an art form for Muji. Paper and packaging is brown and natural. Clothing is simple. The company has its own top-notch design team. It also commissions designs from famous designers around the world; however, their designs are anonymous; there are no designer labels. Muji is very selective about both its brand image and about the manufacturing processes it uses (no extra finishing steps, lots of recycled materials, etc.). Yet despite, or maybe because of, the careful oversight of the brand and the distinctive look of Muji products, the firm has engaged its customers to help with product design.


Lots of product ideas come directly from customers. Muji is known for harnessing and leveraging its customers’ guidance. According to Patrick Reinmoeller, who studied Muji’s customer knowledge-capture,[2] Muji has long encouraged customers to submit product suggestions and pays attention to them. “Every staff member on the sales floor carries a little booklet, the ‘information contact memo.’ Notes taken on customer behavior or short quotes from dialogue with customers are then related to the sales or marketing department,” Patrick explained. Because Muji pays attention and acknowledges customer input, the flood of customer suggestions has been consistent. For example, back in 1998, Patrick wrote, Muji was already receiving an “average of 6,200 suggestions each month for product improvements or new product ideas--suggestions are sent on postcards attached to catalogues (2,000 postcards) and information contact memos (2,000 memos). About 1,200 e-mails are received via Internet. Finally about 1,000 calls and letters arrive at customer services. Fifty people in middle and top management can access customer mail online.”[3] By 2005, Muji was receiving more than 8,000 product ideas a month, from its Japanese customers alone.

Products Resulting from Customer Suggestions

Customers know that Muji pays attention. “Products triggered by suggestions of customers are marked clearly in the catalog. For example, in the apparel catalog of the winter of 1999, 94 out of 631 products were identified as initiated by messages from customers,”[4] Patrick elaborated.

Nevertheless, the process for vetting customer suggestions remained closed until a few years ago. In an article[5] published in The Sloan Management Review in early 2006, Susumu Ogawa described Muji’s product development this way: “Notwithstanding this openness to external input, product planning and product development remains a closed, internal, managed process. Customer input is collected, categorized and evaluated in a structured process, resulting in an internal short-list of top ideas which are discussed in a “business improvement meeting” by a management board including the company president.” The board makes the final decision about whether or not to commercialize a product.

Customers Offer, Vote on, and Commit to Product Ideas

As more and more Muji customers began to flock to the company’s Web site,, to browse the company’s product catalog, to submit product ideas and suggestions for improvements to existing products, and to request that discontinued products be reactivated, Muji’s management team decided to take an idea that had already gained popularity in Japan, and try it with Muji’s online community. The idea was to enable customers to submit product ideas for consideration, to vote on the ideas they liked the best, and then to commit to the final product by agreeing to purchase it, before the product is commercialized.

This idea of customer-designed products with customers’ voting on product ideas had gained attention in Japan, starting in 1999, when two young industrial designers, Kohei Nishiyama and Yosuke Masumoto, at Elephant Design launched a Web site called (which means daydream in Japanese). Within a year, more than 10,000 customers came to the site to describe their needs and/or their product ideas. Other customers voted on each others’ ideas. Then, when an idea got a lot of votes, Elephant Design offered the customer-validated concept to companies to commercialize, produce, and market. A handful of successful products were commercialized as a result.

Muji emulated Elephant Design and offered an open customer co-design process. Each step is visible on the Web site. Customers begin by offering product ideas. (These products don’t have to be unique but they need to be something Muji doesn’t already offer that customers need).

Next, Muji selects the most promising product concepts among the customer ideas (and also selects some of its own products) for customer co-design and requests customer participation by relevant customers. For example, in the case of a child’s bib with a catch-all pocket for spills and food, Muji solicited a panel of mothers with children between 12 and 24 months old. Customers fill in an online questionnaire. Muji selects a couple of hundred customers to help in fleshing out the product idea.

These carefully-screened customers are invited to test different versions of the products and to offer critiques. They may do some product testing and/or they may be invited to a face-to-face product feedback meeting.

Customers provide suggestions and improvements to the product concept. In the case of the child’s bib, mothers recommended the use of a firmer wire to hold the pocket open so that food would drop in, a deeper pocket, better water repellent characteristics, as well as both sleeved and sleeveless versions of the “meal apron.” These recommendations are showcased on for other customers to see and comment upon.

Customer Commitment as a Screening Mechanism. Then the customer community is given an opportunity to vote on whether or not the resulting product should be produced, by pre-committing to purchase the product. If enough customers pre-order (the minimum number of orders is 300), Muji will decide whether or not the product can be successfully commercialized. There are some products that don’t make it past this step, even though customers have pre-committed. But there are many other products that are commercialized and have been very successful, including the child’s meal apron, which went on sale in August 2005. Muji reports that only about 15 percent of the people who say they’ll purchase the product don’t follow through with the purchase.

Muji uses the same “open” process to make changes to products and/or to restock a product that it has discontinued. Customers’ comments and suggestions are posted. If enough customers pre-commit to purchase the product, Muji may bring it back.

Among its customer-originated products, Muji has had some blockbusters, including ...


1) Rattray, Fiona 2005, “Your Life in Their Hands,” The Observer, Sunday, September 18.,11913,1571089,00.html (as of March 2006).

2) Reinmoeller, Patrick 2002, “Dynamic Contexts for Innovation Strategy: Utilizing Customer Knowledge,” Design Management Journal, Academic Review 2, no. 1, pp. 37-50.

3) Ibid.

4) Ibid.

5) Ogawa, Susumu; Piller, Frank T. 2006, “Collective Customer Commitment: Turning Market Research Expenditures into Sales,” Sloan Management Review, vol. 47.

6) Ibid.

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