Dominant design

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Dominant design
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Dominant design relates to the concept that identifies main technological features that are perceived as de facto standard. Introduced by Utterback and Abernathy back in 1975, the dominant design has to be respected on the market if the competitors and innovators want to make a significant impact (J. M. Utterback 1994, p. 24). For example, when new operating system is introduced, many companies will find alternatives or updated versions (e.g. Microsoft – Windows, Apple Inc. – Mac OS and IBM – OS/2). Ultimately, there might be a design that becomes accepted as industry standard (e.g. Microsoft Windows). Therefore, the dominant design enforces standardization so it is possible to seek additional complementary economies for the product (J. M. Utterback, F. F. Suárez 1993).

Dominant designs are not claimed to be better than other designs; they just have set of features that may come from technological path-dependence rather than a strict customer desire. Such example is QWERTY keyboard, which was introduced to solve the problem of limitations of the mechanical typewriter; however, currently it is chosen over other keyboard designs.

Dominant designs are frequently recognized only after their emersion. It is common for the dominant design to be recognized only when it acquires more than 50% of the market share. However, it is a better practice to study particular product innovations over the time in order to determine which ones are sustainable (P. Anderson, M. Tushman 1990, p. 604-635).

Origins of the concept

The concept of dominant design was proposed by William J. Abernathy and James M. Utterback in 1975. It emerged from studies on industrial innovation. At the beginning of market evolution, high market and technical uneasiness resulted in various product designs. It was observed that at some point one product design was preferred over the others. The dominant design not necessarily incorporates the best technical performance, sometimes it is simply driven by technical possibilities and commercial interests among suppliers, users and competitors. Technological boost emerged high competition between alternative designs, which resulted in a period of design variation and ferment. From this evolutionary perspective, the dominant design can be perceived as the transition point between the periods of variation and selection. The studies recorded the dominant design concept in various categories, including typewriters, TVs, automobiles, electronic calculators, etc. However, the dominant design is not observed in all product categories, e.g. supercomputers and video games (E. Ames, N. Rosenberg 1977). Technological evolution has been perceived for a long time as a random process with a path-dependency that contradicts a systematic modelling efforts. However, this view has been challenged by recent studies claiming that product category is a function of its product-market characteristics (R. Agarwal, B. L. Bayus 2002, p. 1024-1041). As a result, a product category's product market characteristics may influence its evolution, having impact on the probability and the timing of a dominant design in this category (P. Anderson, M. Tushman 1990, p. 604-635).

Dominance process flow

There are few characteristic milestones by which a particular design achieves the dominance:

  • The company or research organization conducts R&D to release a new product or to improve an existing one.
  • The prototype model is created which triggers the review of feasibility of the research programs of the competitors.
  • The commercial product is launched exposing consumers to new architecture. Usually it is dedicated to a small group of users. This milestone is considered to be a last call for the competitors to review and finalize their research projects.
  • A clear leader emerges from early market.
  • Ultimately, there is one technological trajectory that reaches dominance over the others and it is the final milestone in the dominance process (F. F. Suárez 2003, p. 9-11).


Author: Katarzyna Mamak