How to ensure your design process yields quality appliances.
The glass door to his 5-year-old oven shattered a few years back, but Gregg Davis was not terribly bothered by it. When he called the manufacturer—long after the warranty had expired—they assured him that they would take of it. The company replaced it and included the labor as well.
On the other hand, his parents had a refrigerator with a ceiling light that wouldn’t turn off. The design flaw ended up costing them $500.
Every stage of the product development process should aim to avoid these issues. In the ideal scenario, a company sees a market need for a new product, goes to potential consumers, refines and develops the product. They would work on creating a product with the best materials at a cost that makes sense. The product delights consumers, who then rave about it to friends and online. They enjoy using the new coffeemaker, the silent dishwasher, the sleek washing machine. Sales climb, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The opposite scenario looks different in every way. The product is designed with the technology at the forefront rather than the market need. Features abound but there are too many so they complicate use of the product. The product is confusing to use—and perhaps dangerous—and costs the customer more with repairs and early replacement.
Ensuring a quality product starts in the design process. Along the way there are several steps that can steer your product in the right direction. Gregg Davis, president of the Columbus, Ohio, office of Taylor & Chu, said there are three things that should be focused on to ensure the best possible quality: electronics, robust testing, and standing behind mistakes if they do occur.
“Electronics is a real hotbed of quality,” says Davis, “not so much initial quality but reliability over time. Appliance manufacturers need to perform that kind of testing, to gain confidence that products are what they need to be.”
“Electronics is a category that really has to be thought through from a quality and a reliability standpoint,” he says.
Testing failure potentials with appliances, as in the hot oven on the self-cleaning cycle, is critical, he says. Another approach is to make it more affordable to swap out subcomponents so customers don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars just to fix a broken clock on an oven.
To ensure quality throughout the development cycle, Davis recommends using advanced product quality planning (APQP) to predict and prevent problems before they occur.
Seeking inspiration beyond the U.S. borders is another smart idea. Davis suggests that North American brands look more globally. “I always look to Europe for reference,” Davis says. “Europe is often quite a few years ahead of us in appliance design and development. Much of the U.S. appliance design trends have been following Europe, visually at least, for a long time.”
Paul Hatch, CEO of TEAMS Design USA Inc., says there are a lot of opportunities for improved design.
“Today I think it’s more relevant than ever that we look to the way a product is used to understand how an appliance could be designed in a much better way than previously,” says Hatch. “I say it’s more relevant today because consumers are more open to new ideas, new experiences, trying new and different things. Ten years ago, that was difficult.”
“When we talk about quality, it’s not just about internal performance (valves etc.), it’s also the communication,” Hatch says. “I think we’ve got to look very carefully in terms of interaction and perception of that appliance. Perception is very intangible. A) It has to work and B) it has to be perceived to work. Perception should not be underestimated.”
In an effort to create a high quality product, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Complexity is one, he says.
“It’s very easy to follow a trail of complexity. Users would like this feature and this feature, and you end up with a very complex offering. A lot [of appliances] are more capable than what they are used for.”
Another approach is the minimal viable product idea. “That is the drive to whittle a product or service down to its most intrinsic values,” Hatch says. “If you are able to reduce a product down to its simple but most valuable components, it’s easier to do a better job with those things. Users get it.” Rather than a vacuum with a myriad of brushes or settings, think of a smoothie maker. It does one job, and does it well. “Simple messages are great, and it leads to a simple technology that you can actually sell for more,” Hatch says. “Now you are selling a much simpler technology but it has perceptibly higher value for the user.”
Coffee & Quality
Sometimes the design process does yield the great quality you are looking for. Several years ago Hatch was tasked with designing a coffeemaker that made a hotter and faster cup of coffee. The client’s research indicated that people were not satisfied with their drip coffeemakers. They spoke with a lot of users, and found that the experience was not meeting expectations: “By the time it had finished brewing, which always seemed too long, the coffee wasn’t hot enough, and didn’t taste very good.”
The assignment was to create the hottest and fastest cup of coffee. The design team got to work. First, they began by insulating some of the internal mechanisms in order to retain heat.
“The magic in this was finding the unmet need from the consumer,” Hatch says, but on the technical side, it was also “great fun” working on a new way of brewing coffee. They took control of the heating process to elevate the coffee making process. After solving the problem, proving it out, and doing proof of concept prototypes, they still had another step remaining. The next phase, Hatch explains, was perception. The reality was that the coffee was going to be better. But they had to communicate that in the housing of the coffeemaker itself. They wanted to borrow the look of a professional espresso maker, with the taste and speed implied by such a machine.
They designed a stainless steel carafe to fit snugly on the machine, and added two stainless steel pipes on the outside. This signaled that the internal workings of the machine were different.
“People really got it,” Hatch says. Rather than the $19.99 price point that many coffeemakers were stuck at, “Mr. Coffee launched this coffee maker at $89,” Hatch says, and it sold better than the others. “People didn’t trust drip coffee makers over $20, but they identified the unmet needs of the consumer.” The company could tell the consumer that this coffee will be better and offer a more enjoyable experience. The next generation of the Optimal Brew from Mr. Coffee is still on sale, Hatch noted.
What Not to Do
Of course, along with best practices, there are also things to avoid.
“There is a tendency to be so enthralled with technology and there is a race to show that you’re relevant,” Davis says. “Companies tend to want to put something out there before they know it isn’t truly wanted.”
With the relationships we have to appliances, we all want something we can trust. Davis compared brands to friendships. “We’re all humans, we all like to connect with things that we like,” he says. “Brands, like friendships, should be always reliable, good to be with, you can trust them. If you find out you can’t trust that person or that product, all of a sudden that falls flat.”
But if things go south, companies can still retain loyal customers by fixing the problem. Although ideally there would be no design flaws that would warrant fixing, proactive support for customers can yield loyalty and stronger connection to the brand.
Davis says companies should send the message, “‘If you buy our product, don’t you worry, we are behind you.’ That’s what connects with consumers.”