Thursday, February 26, 2009

QUICKFIX!! Farberware Nut Cracker

What's Wrong:
  • Unbalanced packaging makes the product hang haphazardly
  • Harsh rectangular cross-section makes me scared to touch it
  • Low-texture finish makes it slippery to hold
  • Awkwardly placed zip ties add to the low-quality, low-cost perception
  • Functionality is basic at best, with no pleasing or enjoyable "bonus" features
QuickFix Solution:
  • Rounded handle sections and highly textured or grip areas make the product pleasant to hold.
  • Bold color grabs the consumer's attention and provides connotation to cooked shellfish.
  • Potentially add an inexpensive secondary "spring" shown in yellow, that keeps the handles together but encourages them to open easily - making it easy to operate in one hand....a surprising and delightful experience for the consumer.
  • Re-position product name and zip ties to reinforce symmetry, increasing perception of quality.
  • Shortening the packaging allows consumers to hold the handles and imagine using and owning the product.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Twitter: "The Ultimate Focus Group?"

First of all, no I do not endorse spending money on focus groups. I believe your money should be spent up front, identifying the right strategic and development opportunities...and focus groups can't do that. Some people still peddle focus groups for validation research to confirm hypotheses prior to market-wide launch, but this too is shaky ground.

Today the NYT ran a piece about Tropicana's decision to axe their new packaging design. Coincidentally, I was just writing about this packaging this weekend. The article is very positive about the effect of instantaneous consumer feedback on marketing and business decisions. It includes several quotes from a PR exec, including this:
“Twitter is the ultimate focus group,” Mr. Shankman said. “I can post something and in a minute get feedback from 700 people around the world, giving me their real opinions.”
While it's great to hear that businesses are listening to the average consumer, there's an underlying threat beneath this progressive mindset. It's easy to imagine how tempted companies will be to "test run" virtual concepts using Twitter-like informational goldmines. It'll be so easy to solicit feedback that many will bypass costly front-end development, sacrificing any opportunity for true user insights based on contextual experience.

Remember, Tropicana consumers had the opportunity to shop for, purchase, open, use, and contemplate the new packaging - that is the only reason they responded with enough passion and conviction to overturn the company's decisions. Smart companies will learn how to take advantage of articulated feedback without letting it overwhelm the unique insights you gain only from ethnographic research and observation.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I Feel Violated by Tropicana's Packaging

Tropicana recently launched new juice cartons, which seemed curious because the old ones were nicer. These just look.....generic. Even my babysitter thought I'd accidentally purchased store-brand juice when I brought it home. This morning when my husband came home with a carton, Tropicana had taken it a step further - just look at the cap! Who wants to touch that every morning?

UPDATE, Feb 23rd: Tropicana has apparently seen the light. I just wish I could have saved them the time and money--maybe next time.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Snobject: New Metro Design's Beater Blade

Anyone who's every used a stand mixer has had this idea - it's a blade wrapped in a thin silicone flange that wipes the bowl sides while beating. There are even a couple of competitors on the market to boot. The BeaterBlade is interesting because it serves an obvious need that KitchenAid and others have for some reason forsaken. However, you won't find a clip-strip of these things anywhere near KitchenAid or Cuisinart stand mixers at retail. They're relegated to infomercial and internet promotions, although SLT is now promoting this SKU as a fan favorite.

Every designer I've ever known has a bank of these kind of ideas on the shelf. Clever, simple little products that would obviously make some amount of money, but without direct backing and distribution by the market leaders.....well, it's an uphill battle. Only so many of us have 500K to sink into our own little product venture, much less a good relationship with the buyers at BB&B (who'll ditch you in a heartbeat for a partner with hundreds of SKUs on the shelf).

Maybe, one day there will be an initiative that gathers up all of these orphan design ideas, centralizing them so that when companies realize they need a creative injection, they can browse and buy what applies to them. I'll try to get to that little project next week!

SLT link here
More about New Metro Design

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

StoreSpy: The Action is in the Aisles

At the turn of the century stores displayed the majority of their goods behind a counter, requiring customers to request what they wanted from the clerk. These days that kind of merchandising would put a store out of business in no time. Modern retail outlets across mass, department, and specialty channels are evolving to more closely resemble casino floor plans than traditional aisle formats.

The challenge retailers are trying to surmount is an over-abundance of goods and a shortage of attention span. Faced with an expansive wall of similarly packaged items with little or no interruption, most consumers turn away, seeking smaller more digestible pockets of visual stimulation. Break that wall down into islands, shelves, and staggered nooks and you've created an entertaining and engaging environment. Consumers will extend the retail experience and hunt and gather items in a comfortably natural pattern.

IKEA is the master of this casino-retail-philosophy, but BB&B and Walmart also offer great examples of the techniques. BB&B offers consumers lifestyle-oriented islands in the middle of vast aisles, essentially eliminating the aisle itself. The islands promote thematic groupings of products that tie into seasonal activities, prompting consumers to "remember that they needed that." A single item often inspires a multi-item purchase in order to support a seasonal activity.

Walmart takes the philosophy a step further. The stores utilize their warehouse format to offer palettes of goods throughout the wide aisles. These palettes can be switched out overnight, and require little to no set-up by employees. Walmart promotions are item-specific, and they rarely bother to cater to themes of lifestyle. Price drives the promotion, and switching promotions and endcaps in and out quickly maximizes efficiency and profits.

Visit any retailer and you'll notice that people pause and hover around smaller clusters of goods. They've been trained to expect bargains in these areas, but they will still buy more in these areas regardless of discounting. It's basic human nature. Shopping has become so overwhelming that consumers are trusting you to tell them what to look at and where to focus. Smart retail buyers promote the right items at the right time, and fortunes are made. Get it wrong and your aisles may be full but the carts will be empty.

So next time you're out shopping, remember that there's a reason you can't get down the aisle with a cart anymore! They don't want you to.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

FORD = Fix Or Repair Daily

As a school kid growing up in the South, this is the taunt I heard echoed on the playground if friends found out you owned a Ford. Fords were reserved for farming families, and generally represented by ancient rusting hulks that could only be trusted to croak on the day that you needed them most. As an adult, I can't say my impression of Ford products has improved dramatically, but I do find the recent article in AutoWeek profiling the new Ford Taurus curious.

The article is a bit of a PR piece, obviously, but it also reveals some surprising facts about Ford's development process. I have a lot of respect for Alan Mulally, the ex-Boeing exec now running the show at Ford. He's up against it. American automakers are so hampered by tradition, long-term contracts, and union obligations that even if they know what needs to be done, it may take a decade to get there. So it was nice to read that:
"The computer let us take a year out of the normal development of this car. Taurus was created in nearly 24 months from start to finish...Many months of effort and many thousands of man-hours have been taken out of the process, and that translates to tens of millions of dollars in savings" - Peter Horbury, Ford design VP/NA
That's great. Just one question - what took Ford so long to get computers? Even the average consumer wouldn't be wowed by " and engineering staff" and "check[ing] the trueness of a surface with the click of a mouse." Mainstream advertising has been selling this concept to every consumer demographic for well over a decade. The mere admission that digital development is new and exciting at Ford is dangerous PR territory. It's so far from a new idea that it's almost embarrassing to admit they are this late to the game.

Nevertheless, Ford now has a new Taurus with a clean, sporty look. The bar-of-soap aesthetic has been tightened up with some crisp lines at the corners and speed creases running down the flanks. Those are good choices. Even older consumers don't want to look like they're driving an old-people-car these days. But the fact that it took 24 months to achieve despite the use of the existing Volvo-derived D3 platform is ominous. By their own admission, this new car is a "top hat" design that includes only body and interior. This timing is still much too slow to keep up wth market trends regardless of digital design integration.

Competitors like KIA spit out a new design every few months by relying on a bank of existing components that can be mixed and matched to create new models with little ground-up development. Conversely, American car producers tend to approach each car as a work of art birthed from years of dedicated development. This mindset was relevant for much of the 20th century because cars were valued as precious objects on-par with the value of homes. Now cars are commodity items - they have much more in common with toothbrushes than homes these days. The American automakers must take advantage of the same streamlined development processes that get a new toothbrush on the shelf every 3 months if they are to survive.

They must go beyond the use of digital tools and apply true ground-up modularity, in-line customization techniques, and smart materials to offer consumers better choices in less time. Changing a production line should take hours, not weeks. Consumers aren't just looking for the flavor-of-the-month anymore - they're quickly getting used to the flavor of the minute. Luckily, with American cars, they'll probably settle for a few more flavors a year.

The article isn't online in it's entirety, but a summary is here

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Snobject: Beaba Babycook Line

This baby product line recently launched at Williams-Sonoma, and it's a hit out of the ballpark. Parent blogs are lighting up about the mini-cooker-processor and the line is expanding quickly to offer storage items and utensils. Haven't checked to see which baby outlets are carrying it, but parents are already seeking to buy lightly used ones--always a good sign that your product has made a real connection with consumer parents. Resale value is tracking at 50-75% MSRP.Find them here

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Snobject: iSi Basics Flex-it Measuring Cup

I first spotted these cups on a BB&B endcap last fall. Amidst the sea of silicone garbage on the market, this product is a simple, useful, and appropriate use of the material's inherent qualities. It definitely deserves a "why didn't anyone get this on the shelf before?"

Find them here

So We're Having a Baby

The truth is that I lead two lives. On one hand, I'm a product developer--I spot the trends, find the answers, and get products on the shelf at the right price. I enjoy my work immensely. It's challenging, risky and often very rewarding. But outside of the bubble of product development I'm a parent. And when I tell other parents what I do, I'm often riddled with questions--not about the joys of the creative process, or how cool it is to get free samples, but the alarming and ever-growing list of safety concerns about the products surrounding our families.

Parents have been barraged with exposes in the past year, leading to a new level of awareness among consumers about product safety. Slowly, they are coming to realize what most people in the industry have known for decades: very little is done to monitor, test, and protect against the sale of harmful goods in the US. The truth seems outrageous, and the shocking examples keep piling up:
  • On August 2, 2007, Fisher-Price recalled approximately 967,000 toys, including Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and other licensed characters. In addition, on August 14, 2007, Mattel recalled approximately 253,000 toy "Sarge" cars. On June 13, 2007, RC2 Corporation recalled approximately 1.5 million "Thomas and Friends" wooden railway toys. There also have been a number of smaller recalls for a variety of children's products this year.
  • Dozens of environmental health organizations in the United States and Canada are calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of a chemical, bisphenol A - or BPA - in food and beverage containers, including baby bottles. They say a new study found that, when exposed to heat, baby bottles release a chemical that, researchers say, has been linked to obesity, diabetes and developmental problems in lab animals. This is still under debate.
  • During the past decade, phthalates have come under fire for their threat to the developing human reproductive system, particularly in young boys. Phthalates can slowly leach from products, and children typically ingest them by hand-to-mouth contact, or by chewing on a toy. California has passed a law banning the sale of these products ahead of nation-wide rulings by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and most large retailers pledged last year to cease selling products with phthalates by Jan. 1; some phased them out in advance. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and Target last year began removing children's products with phthalates from their shelves nationwide.

The first question most parents ask is, "Why are they allowed to sell this stuff?" The presumption among consumers has been that products are inherently safe, and that there must be some oversight already in place. What they are now learning is that product safety in the US is reactionary. Once a problem manifests, and the source is found, we have tools in place to recall or remove harmful products from the shelves. This is the status quo. Outraged parents say that's ridiculous, unbelievable and completely unacceptable! Why is this allowed to happen?

The simple answer is that the market is driven by consumers and their values in regard to product purchases. The market has been heavily focused on cost-cutting and marginalization to achieve the pricing values that consumers have come to expect. Our eyes have been on the bottom line. The type of structure that would need to be in place to guarantee the safety of products before they hit the shelves is simply cost-prohibitive. Currently, we reserve this special treatment only for the things that can kill us rather than just harm us--medical equipment, electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc. The extra attention is reflected by the relatively high cost of these items.

As consumer values change, the market will change to reflect them. If we're willing to accept higher prices, then there will be more accountability. How that accountability is enforced will take time to evolve, but individual businesses will respond if they want to stay ahead of the curve. Americans have always valued honesty and integrity. Proactive brands will benefit from that perception during a time when consumers aren't sure who to trust. And in the end, the proof will be in the pudding, or rather, the prices.

As a product developer, I'll guide my clients to make the most responsible choices the market will bear. As a mom, I hope I'm happy with the results.

For a list of Lead-Recalls from the CDC click here
For a guide to BPA-free baby bottles click here
For environmental, health and safety info about BPA click here

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lesson 01: The AEIOU's of Observation

Observation is the key to understanding. Users will often tell you what they want or dislike, known as articulated feedback, but observing their unarticulated needs in context will provide the unique breakthrough insights you need to make a new product great. I'll address the best methods for seeking, compiling and analysing articulated needs in a future post. For now, it's time to learn your AEIOU's.

Imagine a scenario in which you are trying to understand how to improve upon a standard wire paperclip. You touch and use the paperclip yourself. You spin around in your chair and try to catch your office mate using one, until he notices you staring and freezes in his tracks. Maybe you even ask your parents, neighbors or friends to demonstrate using a paperclip for you. Afterwards, you have a few ideas. You noticed several things that could improve a paperclip, but when you sit down to write or sketch suddenly it seems like you're just thinking in circles. You may end up with one or two hard-won concepts that, while they are improvements, don't seem to be a broad enough base upon which to build. For most companies, this means going back to the drawing board, asking for "more to go on," or often abandoning the platform entirely.

This fruitless scenario can easily evolve into a powerful tool if you add a little technique to the recipe. Committing to the concept of observation in context (AKA not in a focus group setting) is a good step towards success. Utilizing the AEIOU method to catalog your results will help you reap the full benefit of the time you invest in observation.

What to pay attention to during an observation:
  • ACTIVITIES: What are people doing? Describe tasks, paying attention to the sequence of steps (ie: task analysis).
  • ENVIRONMENT: What are the details of the setting? Pay attention to the lighting, furniture, noise levels, and other influencers to the user experience.
  • INTERACTIONS: What exchanges are taking place? Between people, objects, and space?
  • OBJECTS: What objects do you observe? Doodle and list what they are, their uses, and abstract meanings that people give to them.
  • USERS: Who's using it? What's their demographic profile? How do their unique perspectives change the experience?
Using AEIOU, you have given yourself 5 categories across which to interpret a single observation session. Each category is like a lens through which you see the product in all its deficiencies and possibilities. Assuming that you have 2 items of note for each category, 5 simple observation sessions now results in 50 line items of findings. Suddenly you have generated a pool of information that can be further analysed to reveal patterns, trends, and ranked action items. Of course, how to do that requires other techniques, but utilizing AEIOU will get you started on the path to an abundance of ideas that have the potential for much more than just one breakthrough paperclip.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What Do We Do Now?

These days everyone is facing the same question. Times are tough, and it's not easy to know what to do. The natural impulse, of course, is to hold on to every dime you or your company may have and scale back to "weather the storm." In moderation, this isn't a bad idea. Usually there are opportunities to reorganize, optimize efficiency, and cut back your fixed costs--to a degree. But then what? Sitting on your hands and waiting for the clouds to pass can leave you in an even more dire situation when the economic momentum shifts.

After this downturn turns back around and the dust settles the real winners will be the companies that addressed the big picture behind "what do we do now?" Consumers will start buying again, and when they do, they won't be thrilled to see that you've managed to maintain or marginally increase your price points. They won't be relieved to see that the same offerings are still available and that you didn't go out of business. They will be looking for the companies who acknowledge what we have all been through and who connect this knowledge to meaningful products and services that fit their lives.

"Lifestyle" is a word that often gets tossed around the conference table. Marketing and advertising types mull which colors, materials, and packaging will relate to the consumer's lifestyle. Campaigns are born and revised endlessly to achieve great "test-through" with focus groups. If only those few dozen people were enough to support your business, you'd be in great shape! The reality is, companies need to connect with today's consumers on a personal level with obvious and honest comprehension of their needs. What you have offered them for the past decade will not be the right answer for the next decade. And the right answers are just waiting to be found.

What kind of products will relate to consumers who have endured the "economic crisis?" Likely, they'll be much less interested in personalization and customization and more drawn to perceived quality and functionality. Value will not be defined by how closely the product reflects their personal taste and aesthetic, but rather the core needs that reflect how they live an average day. Products that acknowledge and validate the way they clean, cook, drive, and communicate. The experiences that make up a day are constantly evolving. The most successful companies will take the opportunity that this down-time offers to re-evaluate their perceptions of how their product or service supports and enhances today's experiences.

It may seem counter-intuitive to describe a recession as an opportunistic time, but it will be easy to spot the winners when the dust settles. There will be new products and services, developed wisely and economically, that step in and fill the void created by the recession. Those companies will be the ones collecting when consumers suddenly decide to spend, and everyone else will be racing to catch up.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Why Doesn't this Thing Work?

Because I'm a product developer, friends and relatives are always either complaining to me or trying to sell me on their breakthrough idea. Often, they just don't understand why a product or service performs so poorly, or why the right product just doesn't seem to exist. They're not alone--most consumers are disappointed with at least one product experience every day.

Often, the consumer has learned to compensate for the product's shortcomings. They may not even realize how much the interaction is bothering them--the wasted time, the less than desired outcome, the resulting feelings of powerlessness. They've become conditioned to endure the circumstances and actually have little to no expectation of an improved experience--until a new product comes along and they have a chance to encounter it. Suddenly, a mundane and tedious experience becomes pleasurable. They see the experience in a new light--they think, wow, I never knew I liked to vaccuum! They may not know how or exactly why, but from now on their expectations have been raised, and when someone asks them for a product recommendation, they passionately endorse their newfound treasure.

The consumer's transition from "using" a product to enjoying it is a sought-after, miraculous occurrence to most producers of goods. They know a good product when they see one, but they have no idea how to get there first. They desperately want to, and have of late spewed out a vast quantity of goods in their pursuit of the mysterious sweet spot. But times are changing, and it's time for producers to educate themselves.

The process of strategic development isn't a form of voodoo. It's a process, just like any other in our business environment. At the moment, there are a limited number of people with the skills and expertise to execute this process. Understanding how to combine user insights, retail insights, and the development process to create success in the market is still a relatively new science. For me, the user's needs and solutions are so painfully obvious that I'm often left thinking, surely I'm not the first person to have this idea? But more often than one might expect, I am. I didn't draft my process overnite, however--it's an accumulation of the experiences and exposures I've been fortunate to have over the last decade. Let the dissection begin.