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issue: August 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Balancing Simplicity and Performance

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by Ian Anderson, head of product development, Sagentia

Consumers are always looking for new and innovative products, as seen with the recent spate of coffee pod systems and smoothie makers in foodservice, not to mention portable media devices and gaming consoles for entertainment. But the market is littered with failures. New Coke was a very visible bomb, and most fast-food outlets can attest to some dud product introductions. I often stare at my (now) unused and expensive home cappuccino maker that only worked for two weeks.

It makes me wonder if those of us who introduce new appliances are immune to or symptomatic of the same environment. The truth is that it is often very challenging to convert insight and hard work into a product that is a whopping success. That is why an innovative—and even painstaking—approach is the only way to vet out the very best possible ideas and implementations. This is especially true for consumer appliances.

Over the years I have found that small appliances and white goods are often expected to operate in two distinct and opposing modes:

  • Chore mode. The consumer is just aiming to get the job done. The user wishes to only have minimal interaction with the product and expects quality at the touch of a button.
  • Gratification mode. The consumer actually takes pleasure in creating something special during use. Here, the consumer is looking to be part of the process. He or she wants to have the capability to control the output so that it provides a certain level of quality and  personal satisfaction.

In reality, the market’s most successful products should combine both of these modes. Most appliances should be expected to operate in either mode, depending on the following variables:

  • User’s mood and preference.
  • Skill level.
  • Time of week (weekday or weekend).
  • Desired output or task.

However, many products are still being developed to operate on an either-or basis. For example, dishwashers and refrigerators operate primarily in the chore mode, while smaller appliances such as mixers and manual implements like the chef’s knife tend to be gratification oriented. Exceptions exist, of course. The occasional chore-based dishwasher may offer consumers special features such as crystal-clear glasses for a dinner party or sanitized items for infants.

The real challenge appliance manufacturers face is how to capture and understand what people are looking for from an appliance, large or small. Once these needs are understood, product developers can better take into consideration both the chore and gratification modes—and ultimately a better product should result.

One approach is for the manufacturer and the design team to analyze when consumers just want to get the job done versus when they have time and want to be the master of the activity. We also must consider if our time with a product degrades performance in either mode, and if it is believable when we buy it off the shelf in the big-box warehouses.

Customer-focused design is one of the best methods of vetting consumer hurdles—and inefficiencies they could face—all the while delivering the functionality in a way that will delight them. This critical step also helps those involved in the product development process to better understand the outcomes consumers desire from the tool that does the job for them, or the tool that supports them in their “creation.”

When creating a product that is a balance between simplicity and performance and that meets all of consumers’ needs, it is necessary to take a fresh look at all aspects of the product. Otherwise, it will probably be a compromise and not provide the desired level of functionality, flexibility, and quality. We are not just looking at a better control panel or software user interface: The whole product needs to be deconstructed and innovation driven in all aspects—from layout to technology—for the true breakthrough.

Breakthrough product creation in the appliance industry is an iterative process, and we should be constantly checking our vision with reality. This analysis and additional information will help shape the product and identify any shortcomings early on in the development process. Hopefully, the end result is closer to iRobot’s Roomba, not my broken cappuccino maker.

About the Author

About the Author

Ian Anderson is head of product development at Sagentia, a technology management and product development company based in Cambridge, UK. To contact Anderson, e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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