The consumer role in the business choices


In the sector of the household appliance design, they do not listen to end users’ voice only when the product is finished, to have a feedback that would be late, but also in the design phases, to intercept their tastes and needs. The narration by an American company that involves consumers since the first concept phases.

Bruna Aleramo

They have ended the times when the design moment was a phase in which the participation was exclusive of the company’s technicians and consumers made their appearance only when the product was defined and accomplished. Today consumers must be called “to take part” in the project, so that the final result is as close as possible to their expectations and requirements. Not too long ago the American company GE Appliances operated in traditional way: the development process consisted of designers and engineers studying, sketching designs, developing models and assembling focus groups, while making adjustments to prototypes as needed. It was a type of process that started from the conviction of being able to intercept end users’ tastes and expectations. But end users, in the past, were different. Perhaps less informed, certainly less advanced from the technological point of view. Today the quantity and the quality of technology of which average users can avail themselves have made this kind of process obsolete.
Today consumers expect and require the last characteristics and functions, but without complicating the design or increasing the price tag. They expect features that they’ll use every day but at the same time they want to make use of performances that they would have never imagined. Perhaps they will not use them, but they want to know that they are available.
This evolution has led the company to modify its approach to the household appliance design. Which we might summarize in “to assume less, to ask for more”. To ask to whom? To those who can be critical and demanding, that’s to say those who have then the last word on the household appliance: consumers.

Designers meticulously observe families in their homes to understand how household appliances can make their habits and routines easier.
We may have the best engineers, designers and developers in our staff but we are also aware that there is a bit of psychology behind the product use and purchase.

Interfacing with customers

A first difference in comparison with the previous approach resides in giving nothing for granted and in not starting with aprioristic concepts to be afterwards verified with consumers. No. they are integrated into the design process and, before putting pen to paper, they are requested to express what they want, enabling them to think what would be the performances, the aspect and the general characteristics of their ideal household appliance. An approach that is fulfilled through three steps: participatory research, in-depth observation and extensive testing.
The participatory research is something more structured and complex than focus groups, because users are requested to design, to imagine and “to handle” with paper, scissors and glue to realize their model of household appliance. A shell of a refrigerator is proposed to consumers and then they have “to compose” their ideal interior by designing, through 3D models and drawings, their shelves, the door, the storage room and other components. These elements are placed by users where they would really use them to allow us to understand and visualize their needs, indeed. To support this phase GE studio has installed the latest rapid prototyping machines that can translate drawings into mock-ups quickly, so that 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 in few minutes.
This type of research comes early – sometimes years before a product will be seen at retail – and often. We work with the consumer to design and re-design the product features under the direction of new consumer team insights. This team records learnings, analyzes findings and then shares them with designers to translate them into mock ups, prototypes and software concepts that will be revised by the business.
Another essential part is observation.
GE designers meticulously observe families in their homes to understand how household appliances can make their habits and routines easier. An example was given by the observation of how customers use water dispensers, targeted to the refrigerator design. Technicians, from the observation of consumers’ behaviours, discovered that they showed impatience when, instead of the cup or the glass, they had to fill sports bottles and pitchers with a significant capacity. Impatience, hurry, the will of not “wasting time” is a characteristic often highlighted. Still with this empiric modality, they had already noticed that consumers unloaded their dishwasher while toasting a slice of bread or they checked their e-mails while boiling water. Waiting for pitchers to fill was not acceptable. The result of these observations is the conceiving of a hands-free auto-fill device that will virtually fill vessels of any shape while the consumer walks away. The feature can handle almost anything, from a large water pitcher to the dog dish. A pull-out tray positions large containers underneath the dispenser.
Other interesting information can come from the observation of the organization of refrigerator inner spaces. At GE they noticed that condiments accounted for a notable quantity, almost one fourth of the foods in the refrigerator, but anyone stored these items in different way. Some consumers wanted an egg shelf on the door but for others the egg shelf area was wasted space. The consequence was the design of adjustable shelves that can be moved depending on needs, as well as a drop-down egg shelf, so that consumers can store eggs or push the shelf up and use the space in different way.
Similarly, while designing new dishwashers, the company technicians noticed that consumers washed a lot of partial loads and in some cases they very meticulously rinsed 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 is, to eliminate the pre-dishwasher rinse.
In addition to observing consumers in their homes, GE teams also carry out complete and extensive in-store shopping studies, where they accompany shoppers while 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 in our staff but we are also aware that there is a bit of psychology behind the product use and purchase. To this end, the company has involved a cognitive psychologist to help the engineers apply what we know about human cognition to the product design process, a role that is very important during the product testing stage.
Much of the product testing takes place at the human factor lab – Studio U – in the 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 consists in improving design elements and operations by obtaining consumer feedback and applying it directly to the product design –in the early design stages.
Studio U focuses on testing the usability of controls, ergonomics, consumers’ perceived quality in terms of competitive benchmarking and standardized behaviour. When testing usability, teams have consumers use products thinking aloud about how they are problem solving. On other occasions, they look at how design impacts normalized behaviour and perceived quality.
In another example, when exploring prototypes of new French door water dispensers, consumers informed designers that the dispenser “paddle” looked fragile and 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 about design characteristics are also conducted. For example, different dishwasher latching mechanisms can be compared to competitive products. This comes down to details like colour, which is why GE’s newest water heater, GeoSpring, has red shades. During testing, consumers shared that the red colour would catch their attention at retail over the sea of gray and white typically associated with products in this category.

Investing in research
The design process has always been a critical part of the activity, but as GE lavishes an investment of one billion dollars in the development of new household appliances, design becomes crucial to success.
Among the next steps fixed by the company, there 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 turn off appliances while away on vacation and make sure that they are on and running when the family returns home.