Time for Consumer-Centered Appliance Design
The design process always has been critical, but today it takes more hours of research, observation and hard work.
Not too long ago, our product development process consisted of designers and engineers studying trends, sketching designs, developing mock-ups and assembling focus groups, and made adjustments to prototypes as needed. We thought we were being pretty progressive. We assumed, with confidence that we were getting inside the consumer’s head at every turn.
That was then.
Today’s consumers made that process outdated. They want the latest features and functionality, but without complicating the design or increasing the price tag. They expect features they’ll use every day, but at the same time they want to be delighted by features they may never have imagined. Ask, and they will share how they would have designed our appliances differently, maybe even better.
So, that got us thinking. Under a model that has completely turned product development on its head, we at GE are assuming a lot less, and asking a lot more. We’ve even put a new demanding boss in charge of our industrial design group, and she’s a tough critic. Her name? The consumer.
Today, we still follow trends and embrace technology. That always will be an important part of our jobs as designers; but we assume nothing from the start. We don’t compile sketches or mock-ups and ask consumers to respond to them upfront anymore. Instead, we insert consumers into the design process, ask and observe what they want and literally have them design their ideal appliances – before we ever put pen to paper.
Our 360-degree proactive approach consists of three layers:
In-depth observation and
When we say we’re having consumers participate in design, we don’t just mean in focus groups. We have consumers quite literally design their ideal appliances using foam core, paper, scissors and glue.
For instance, we present a shell of a refrigerator and then have them create their “ideal interior” by designing, through mock-ups and 3D designs, their own shelves, door storage and other components. We then have them place these elements where they’d use them to allow us to really understand and visualize their needs.
We’ve installed the latest rapid prototyping machines in our studio that can translate drawings into mock-ups quickly, so when the consumer has an inspired moment about the shape of a shelf or the curve of a handle, we can have a mock-up created within minutes for the consumer to try.
This type of research comes early – sometimes years before a product will be seen at retail – and often. We never leave a product feature at its first, second or even 22nd pass. We work with the consumer to design and re-design product features under the direction of a new consumer insights team. This team records learnings, analyzes findings and then shares them with designers to translate into mock-ups, prototypes and software concepts for review by the business.
In addition to participatory research, observation is a critical part of product development. We’ll pretty much move in with a consumer if it helps us come up with a winning design. Designers meticulously observe families in their homes to understand how appliances can make their habits and routines easier.
When we set out to design our French door refrigerators, for instance, we paid close attention to how consumers use their on-door water dispensers. What we found surprised us. We knew they’d be filling water glasses and mugs, but we also observed them attempting (and struggling) to fill sports bottles and pitchers much larger than a 12-ounce tumbler. In an era where we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification, we also found them impatient with the time it took to fill these vessels.
Multitasking was prevalent across the board.
We saw consumers unloading the dishwasher while toasting a bagel or checking emails while boiling water. Waiting for pitchers to fill was not acceptable. The result of these observations is a hands-free autofill feature that will fill virtually any-sized vessel while the consumer walks away; the feature can handle most anything from a large water pitcher to a coffee pot to a dog dish. A pull-out tray positions larger containers underneath the dispenser.
We also were amazed at how many condiments most consumers store. Of those we observed, condiments accounted for nearly a quarter of the total food items in the fridge, but everyone stored those items in a different way. Some consumers wanted an egg shelf on the door; but for others, the egg shelf area was wasted space – sometimes they had eggs, sometimes they didn’t. Our resulting design incorporates adjustable shelves that can move based on needs, as well as a drop-down egg shelf, so consumers can store eggs or push the shelf up and use the space in a different way.
Similarly, when designing new dishwashers, we saw consumers washing a lot of partial loads and, in some cases, very meticulously rinsing dishes before placing them in the dishwasher. So new models will wash top racks or bottom racks independent of one another and will apply steam in a pre-wash no matter what the load size to virtually eliminate that pre-dishwasher rinse. We also saw consumers really digging for their silverware baskets, so our dishwasher flex baskets attach to the outside of each dishwasher rack and can be used on either the top or bottom.
In addition to observing consumers in their own homes, GE teams also complete extensive in-store shopping studies where they accompany shoppers as they search for new options, see what influences them, observe where they struggle in the experience and more fully understand the purchasing process overall.
After observing and involving consumers in participatory design, we move to testing. We may have the best engineers, designers and developers on staff, but we are also aware that there is a bit of psychology behind product use and purchases. To this end, we’ve employed a cognitive psychologist to help our engineers apply what we know about human cognition to the product design process, a role that is very important during our product-testing stage.
Much of our product testing takes place at our human-factors lab – Studio U – at our Appliance Park headquarters. The purpose of Studio U is to investigate issues of consumer use and perception related to the design and engineering of our products. The “U” stands for usability, universal design, understanding and “you” -- the consumer. The mission is to improve design elements and operations by obtaining consumer feedback and applying it directly to the product’s design – early in the process.
Studio U focuses on testing the usability of controls, ergonomics, consumers’ perceived quality of “fit and feel,” competitive benchmarking and normalized behavior. When testing usability, our teams have consumers use products on a task-by-task basis while thinking aloud about how they are problem solving. On other occasions, we look at how design impacts normalized behavior and perceived quality.
In another example, when exploring prototypes of new French door water dispensers, consumers informed product designers that the dispenser “paddle” looked fragile and that they had concerns about children breaking it. As a result, GE redesigned the paddles to sit more snugly against the back wall of the cavity for better durability.
Comparative studies in design characteristics are also conducted. For example, different dishwasher latching mechanisms on GE products may be compared to competitive products. This even comes down to details like color, which is why GE’s newest water heater, the GeoSpring, has red accents. During testing, consumers shared that the red would catch their attention at retail over the sea of gray and white typically associated with products in this category.
A Capital Investment
The design process always has been a critical part of our business, but as GE embarks on a $1 billion investment in the development of new appliance products by 2014, design will be crucial to success.
Next on our plate is the design of additional smart technologies to support the connected home. Soon there will be mobile applications that will tell the consumer when the laundry is finished and when the oven is pre-heated and technologies that will allow consumers to turn off appliances while away on vacation and make sure they are up and running by the time the family returns home.
Consumers may not realize when they fill their water bottles, load their dishwashers or tap into their appliances remotely just how many hours of research, observation and hard work are behind the design; and we don’t want them to. We just want to make their lives easier, and if we do, that’s what we’ll call a success.