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issue: June 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Feature - Electric Housewares and Floorcare Appliances
Reaching Consumer Needs


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Lisa Bonnema

The story behind developing an integrated wand on a new Electrolux bagless upright answers consumer needs to vacuum above the floor.

When designers at Electrolux decided to develop the brand’s first bagless upright vacuum, they knew there was only one way to do it right: Ask the consumer. Three years and several iterations later, the company introduced Versatility, a vacuum that was literally designed for the user—from the ground up.

Starting with the User

Randy Sandlin, general manger, Consumer Experience and Innovation, Electrolux Home Care Products North America, says the driving force behind the new vacuum was an integrated wand system, a concept that resulted from consumer ethnographies. These studies revealed one very obvious need—that consumers were having a hard time vacuuming areas above the floor, such as crown molding and ceiling fans.

“We saw that typical products were really cumbersome to deal with for this above-floor cleaning,” Sandlin tells APPLIANCE. “Today, typically in an upright vacuum, you have a series of wands. You pull the hose off. Then you have to take the wands out of the holder. You have to put those two together, and then you have a dusting brush some place else on the unit. It was a long process to watch what the consumer had to go through.”

The Electrolux team then came up with the idea of an integrated telescopic wand. The wand extends up to 14 feet and has an onboard dusting brush so that users can reach high areas. A soft plastic piece on the end of the wand also allows users to get into the nooks and crannies along the floor. “We saw that people were using the same wand systems to get along the baseboards,” Sandlin says.

While the concept of the wand system was the impetus of the project, Sandlin says it took a lot of trial and error—and more consumer feedback—to get to the final design. “This went through a lot of iterations after the concept came about,” he confirms. “We actually did a lot of focus groups. We knew we wanted a wand system, but then, how did we want it on the product? How did we want to communicate it at retail?”

Safe Design Choices

The company’s first round of models used several different buckles and latches to attach the wand to the vacuum base. Focus groups revealed that none of these were successful in attracting the consumer.

“Some of the feedback we got back was that certain mechanisms to hold the handle to the main unit looked weak, or they didn’t understand that the handle came out,” Sandlin explains. “So other designers and I sat down and said, ‘We have an issue. We’ve got to communicate to the consumer that it is secure, it is [of high] quality, it stays attached, and when they actually look at it on the shelf, they are drawn to it.’”

The team brainstormed internally as well as with retailers and came up with the concept of security. The “aha” moment, Sandlin says, was when his design boss flew in from Sweden and they discussed how airplane seat belts make people feel secure because they hold you in. “We thought to develop a buckle design so that it looks like the wand is really attached, and then when the consumer touches the buckle, something happens.”

According to Sandlin, the buckle solved several design issues. First, it addressed the confusion that users were having with how to use the integrated wand. Because the vacuum doesn’t have a lot of the external pieces consumers are used to seeing on an upright, it was almost intimidating to use; however, the buckle was a familiar mechanism the consumer could easily relate to. “The buckle gave the consumer something to touch, and when they touch it, they understand the handle comes off.”

Sandlin says that clearly communicating how the product worked was especially important at the point of purchase. “If consumers don’t get what your intention is on the shelf, you have a major problem,” Sandlin notes. “This is even important from a graphic design and color standpoint. We actually chrome-plated the buckle so it is the brightest part on the product.”

The buckle also addressed the durability issues that users were having with earlier latching designs. Electrolux felt that because people associate seat belts with safety, users would perceive a stronger, more durable handle. To reinforce this message, Sandlin says a substantial amount of effort was put into the mechanical engineering of the wand system. “There is a lot of engagement from the plastic parts so that when you are holding this, it holds together and is not flimsy or moving for the consumer,” he says.

Specifically, there are 2.5 inches of solid engagement between the main housing of the vacuum cleaner and the upper part of the handle structure. While the buckle keeps the wand in place from top to bottom, a rib structure keeps it in place from back to front. The wand is housed at the bottom as well. For structural durability, designers chose an ABS material for the handle and aluminum for the wand.

Another major design focus was the grip of the handle. “We went through several different types of grips; it’s really understanding how people use the product,” Sandlin says. Using internal focus groups, the design team found that the vacuum actually needed two grips—one for pushing the product during main vacuuming, and one for lifting the wand overhead for above-floor cleaning.

“When you are pushing the vacuum, your hand is more on the top side,” Sandlin says. “And then when you pull the wand out and keep your hand on that same grip, you are really forced to use two hands.” To make the task less cumbersome for consumers, the design team added another grip on the top surface. Designers also used a soft spray for both grips—as opposed to rubber or a plastic on plastic design—to keep the handle as lightweight as possible.

 

Based on extensive consumer research, Electrolux developed a quick-release wand that telescopes out for easy above-floor vacuuming. A buckle latching system keeps the wand secured to the vacuum base.

Integrating the Brand

While the integrated wand system was developed to answer a consumer need, it was also an important part of the vacuum’s brand language. With the company’s Scandinavian history, the Electrolux brand is built around clean, intuitive, integrated design. “Our designs are simple. There’s some energy to it, but they are pure in their forms,” Sandlin says.

To keep the design intuitive, the wand is based on the hierarchy of how consumers would use it. Once the wand is pulled out, there are three interfaces. The first button can actually take the long wand off if the user only wanted to vacuum with a short wand. The team wanted to give the consumer this option, but most of their research revealed the consumer used the long wand enough to keep it as the default design.

The second button allows the user to telescope the wand. The third button is found further down the wand and can be used to move the dusting brush to the end of the wand. “It was logical in the design that all the buttons were the same,” Sandlin notes. “There is some contrast in color, so they understand this is where I push.”

Although it was possible from a design standpoint, the Electrolux team decided not to integrate the crevice tool based on ethnography findings. “The nozzle has a plastic tip so users can go around crevices, but if they really want to get into a small crevice, which isn’t as often, that’s actually stored very nicely on the back of the unit.” A “power-in-hand” turbo tool used to clean stairs is also separate, but is designed to magnetically lock into place in an integrated “pocket” on the front of the product.

To keep the visual design streamlined, the designers played with shapes, colors, and electronics. “We do a lot of breaking of the plastic parts,” Sandlin says. “If you see a side shot, you see kind of a gray side panel. From an aesthetic side, we did that to make the product look a certain way, visually a little thinner. We added a texture to that. It’s a nice little aesthetic detail to break the really high gloss.”

The vacuum also has only two noticeable indicators—carpet and floor. The other indicators—which alert the consumer if the brush roll or filter require maintenance—are housed in an in-molded “dummy” panel. Sandlin says that while this approach kept the design clean, more importantly, it focused on the user. “The consumer only needs to know that something is wrong with the brush roll when something happens,” he says.


 

Designed to float smoothly along floor surfaces, the Versatility does not require a carpet-height adjuster.

Focused Design

Keeping the user at the forefront of each design detail is critical, according to Sandlin. And while Versatility certainly offers more features than the wand system (see sidebar, “High-Powered Details” on page 26), Sandlin says this part of the vacuum was a major design element that took months to perfect—and with good reason. “We really focused on this upper area for quite a long time to make sure we got it right because it’s so important to the core of the product,” he explains. “That’s what was really important—identifying the needs for the consumer and then coming up with a product that really does deliver.”

Sandlin admits that as a designer, there is always that urge to put more on a product. However, he says it is important not to stray from the original design intention. “Part of the development is focusing on what you want to do and not making compromises on those areas,” he says. “There are different needs out there. There are needs around air quality; somebody else has a pet. Through the development, you have to stay true to that and solve the problem.”

Cuisinart (Stamford, CT, U.S.; www.cuisinart.com) has literally flipped traditional design on its head with its first vertical rotisserie, the CVR-1000. The appliance was developed for healthier cooking, as the rotisserie’s design drains unwanted fat into a trip tray. The oven also offers several cooking functions, including a skewer set for kebabs, a roasting rack for beef or lamb, a poultry tower for chicken, and a multipurpose basket for salmon and shrimp. Other features include five preset oven temperature settings, programmable touchpad controls, an LCD readout, and 3-hour countdown timer with automatic shutoff.


 

 

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