Design Trends in Major Appliances
The major appliance industry is undergoing a design and innovation renaissance.
There are some trends building steam in the home appliance industry. After a long period of sameness, the major appliance industry is undergoing a design and innovation renaissance and the changes have only just begun.
Not only have consumers embraced innovative design solutions, but products like Nest (thermostats, etc.) and others have demonstrated the benefits of tapping into intelligence and interconnectivity that make passive home products much more active and adaptable without additional work on the part of the consumer.
There are some specific categories that are undergoing design innovation:
- New research tools
- Organization and task support
- IoT - Internet of Things
- Product lifecycle alignment
Research and Design Innovation
Performing the right kind of research that supports truly innovative design is not easy. Ethnographic research tools and observational analysis is not the kind of research that conventional market research organizations perform.
Design research uses tools that help see where gaps exist which usually cannot be verbalized by consumers.
Coupling these two tools and analyzing the gaps between them is the key to uncovering unmet needs and learning where the opportunities for innovation lie that are not obvious and are unspoken. They have to be extrapolated through analysis.
Just a short number of years ago the design of refrigerators in the home fell under one of three types: top mount freezer, bottom mount freezer or side by side. Since then, some great new innovations such as the French door configuration have eclipsed other configurations in sales. Washing machine innovations such as the add-an-item washer that lets the consumer open a mini door while running mid-cycle is another example of innovative designs that improve accessibility.
This is only the beginning.
French door refrigerators are also pushing forward on their own path of innovation. Initially, the French door refrigerator had two compartments; two doors accessing the upper fresh food compartment, and one lower drawer accessing the bottom freezer compartment.
Then came better accessibility of the lower freezer by dividing it into two drawers; the upper small drawer allowing less layering of items located within the optimum human factors zone in the middle so the consumer doesn’t have to bend down.
Further innovation and technology support has brought independent temperature adjustability of that upper drawer so that the consumer can change the function from fresh to freezing temperatures.
Organization and Task Support
Bottom freezer drawers that are cavernous, deep containers are not liked by consumers. They end up as a large pit of bags, boxes and containers that just pile up chaotically to form layer upon layer that one has to dig through to locate something inside.
While French door refrigerators are a category loved by many consumers, it is also a category that, due to its newness continues to need a lot more innovation. The largest areas for opportunity are the icemaker integration and that bottom large freezer drawer.
The challenge with storage in a freezer is to support the organization yet still allow the flexibility desired. For example, a pizza box is a large item that some people use, yet to dedicate a space that only a pizza box can use would be overly restrictive.
Task support improvements that often emerge from insightful research processes can lead to ideas such as a washing machine that lets people scrub out stains in an inner lid which serves as a mini sink.
The ability to access intelligence from many sources is only beginning to be considered for its potential to revolutionize the products and appliances we design.
Clothes washing is a very deep opportunity for new design thinking. For many years, companies that make cleaning detergents for washing machines have made significant advances in how the specific chemistry interacts with fabrics. And likewise, the washing machine technologies have also advanced in ways that agitate clothing in new ways, and reduce water consumption.
Advanced Detergents and Advanced Machines
But the machines and the specialized chemistries do not interconnect intelligently. No washing machine has yet to be aware of the specific laundry detergent being used and then match its processes with the ideal cycle for that detergent inside.
The companies that make the laundry detergents have amazing data and knowledge about how clothing can best be cleaned; the ideal temperatures and optimal wash timing are part of their deep knowledge on how to best clean clothing tailored for each detergent. But currently the detergent selection is not known to the machine and the machine cannot take advantage of the best performance for that particular detergent’s capabilities.
Machine awareness of garment types
Additionally, the machines do not currently know what type of clothing has been placed inside the machine. Technologies are starting to exist that could match up clothing with the machine cycle.
Waterproof IDs that could transmit the garment type to the machine could change that equation. Or barcode labels that could be scanned as a garment is placed inside could impart intelligence to the process.
Automation vs. Controllability
Intelligence is only welcome by the consumer if it reduces involvement and decision making. An intelligent refrigerator that pesters the consumer frequently to decide on something or to do something is an annoyance. However, a refrigerator that intelligently performs something with minimal or no added interaction can be highly desired.
Refrigerators don’t currently need much interaction to do their job. So anything that is added to the intelligence of its performance must be a profound improvement to warrant more involvement. Or the additional intelligence needs to be able to run ‘in-the-background’ without increasing the burden on the consumer.
A refrigerator that keeps tabs on what goes into it and how long it’s good for is one challenge that has many potential ways to solve it. This is probably one area that consumers will desire, if it can be painless to use and low cost to have.
Washers and dryers have an enormous potential for improvement in harnessing intelligence to match garments with cycles, and machine processes with detergent chemistry ideals. Laundry is one of the more complex activities that requires a lot of decision making, and work and bad choices can have disastrous consequences on clothing shrinkage, stains, and the need for ironing out wrinkles.
IoT Internet of Things
There is a tremendous amount of innovation taking place in the area of appliances that are connected to the internet. For a long time design and innovators tried to place unwanted items into appliances (like a tablet PC in the door of a fridge) without much interest in the market.
The integration of technology to support the IoT requires some clear benefits in order to be valid for inclusion. One or more of the following should be considered:
- Improve the function of the device itself significantly (for the product itself within the kitchen or laundry). Example: A washing machine that knows what kind of clothes are inside, so that it can set the cycle automatically.
- Improve the device function as part of a system within the home (for the product integrated functionally with other products in the home). Example: set the laundry cycle on the washer, and then the washer automatically transfers that info to the dryer so that the dryer load runs without any new entries once the clothes are transferred into it.
- Improve the device function to better support the consumer’s life. Example: A refrigerator that knows when it is summer, or holidays so that it adjusts ice production and temperatures for increased demand.
- Improve the consumer’s life beyond the device. Example: Monitor its own performance and send an alert to a repair shop and the consumer that the product may need servicing soon. A motor that starts to consume increased current can be an indication that it’s ready to fail, alerting a microprocessor to send out a repair warning.
Mismatching lifespans = mismatching trust
When a consumer sees an appliance that they know has a long life span, and they see that it has an added technology which obviously has a much shorter lifespan than the appliance, there is usually concern that the technology will not remain relevant over the course of life of the appliance. An example of this can be seen when a brand introduces a touch screen on the door of a refrigerator that lets the consumer manage a shopping list, or make notes to other family members. These kinds of functions advance so fast in other products that the consumer realizes that this will likely be out of date with their needs in a few short years.
The consumer understands these realities:
- The life of major appliances is from 12-15+ years.
- The life of small appliances like coffee makers is about 5+ years.
- The life of most apps is 1-2 years with updates every month etc.
When we combine varied lifespan functions into the same product, consumers get concerned. The match up of a major appliance or even a car with functions like these has to earn the trust of the consumer that these will be updated and supported over the course of the longest lifespan, which is that of the major appliance.
Overcoming these challenges
- Don’t mismatch the life spans (unless there is clear support for the shorter life items)
- Focus on the core functionality of the primary product. Don’t confuse gimmicks for valuable design innovation.
- Consider a system that allows flexing over time with the additional device or system.
- Partner with other organizations who are leading and who are accepted authorities in the area you are integrating. Apple, Google and Microsoft have been involved in the integration of car software systems that expand the functionality. They are trusted to keep re-innovating their part of the system frequently, and that gives the consumer trust in the lifespan of the major appliance as well as the integrated software driven functionality.