What makes a product innovative? Certainly, innovation delivers products that are better in form and function than previous solutions. So too, clever design solves problems in a more efficient manner or adapts better to the environment they’re designed for. Yet, with every new product innovation and design process, the starting point and most essential component is always the same: a user with an unmet need.
In order to be successful, good product design must firstly understand the way people work, function or perform everyday tasks as well as what barriers they experience in accomplishing their work and achieving optimal performance. Only when an inventor or designer understands these real barriers and the root of the problem, can they visualise and ultimately realise the product to overcome them.
Howard Head’s innovative lesson
One legendary example of people-centred innovation was the development of the modern skii . When Howard Head first encountered skiing in the late 1940s, he was embarrassed by his poor ability to manoeuvre his heavy wooden skis. During WWII Head worked for an aircraft company building B-26s. Drawing on his experience with lightweight aluminium and plastics used in the aerospace industry, he set to work to build a better, more functional and aerodynamic ski.
Head developed more than 40 unsuccessful prototypes over three years. With each failure he improved and adapted the designs and materials with feedback from experienced skiers and ski instructors. His final light-weight, durable and affordable modern ski opened the sport up to people of all ages, backgrounds and skill-levels meaning whole families could enjoy a trip to the slopes. Skiing became a leisure activity for the masses. His story of relentless innovation to solve a problem and his extensive user-testing became legendary in his company’s success, which is now synonymous with both skiing and tennis.
Putting the user in ‘usability’
Successful innovation begins and ends with the user and their problem. As the famous American designer Charles Eames said “Recognising the need is the primary condition of design.” Developing better commercial solutions requires a deep understanding of the industry, the different roles, workplace practices, problems and goals. Innovative design doesn’t happen in a bubble, but through ongoing collaboration with every stakeholder connected to the process.
Another example of user-centric innovation is the Newell Brands Design Centre behind Rubbermaid Commercial Products (RCP), where the team’s purpose and principle is to put the customer at the heart of every product and solution they create. Usability is engrained with every design project from the start.
The company’s Usability Design team works with real-world users to see the kind of issues they have and come up with ways to make their jobs easier. They imagine what the user’s world and work may be like in the future. The process connects the way people move, think and work and responds with solutions that match their cognitive abilities, physical abilities and needs, to solve today’s problems and eliminate issues in the future.
At Newell Brands Design Centre, developing a new innovation for RCP is the outcome of a rigorous and comprehensive design process, and the user is in mind at every stage. The first phase is the new concept/Ideation phase. The initial concept is borne out of a customer need and the product concept must pass a stringent usability test which also assesses relevance and differentiation in the marketplace.
Once the prototype is created it is put through its paces by the end user. By closely viewing end-users interacting with prototypes, the team observes their behaviour and evaluates how intuitive the product is to use. Does it make sense to them? Does it match how they think? Is it ergonomic and does it fit how they move? This is particularly relevant for commercial cleaning technologies, as many cleaning actions are repetitive, and the user may have developed specific muscle-memory movements and postural habits.
Observing the user experience to transform it
The essence of user-centric design is the marriage of critical thinking and creative problem solving – sometimes solving a problem that the user has accepted as the “way it is”. Take traditional wet mopping, which was long accepted as a heavy-duty job for environmental services professionals, and for whom the resulting shoulder and lower back injuries were common.
There are a number of challenges for the user that innovative design can solve to make the job easier, faster and less risky for the worker. Wet mopping involves a high degree of physical force to clean effectively as well as manual handling of mops, chemicals and heavy buckets.
When it comes to commercial cleaning technologies, it is crucial to understand a human body’s biomechanics and range of movement to create products that respond naturally and ergonomically to various users’ height, build and strength. For example, a microfibre mopping solution eliminates the task of re-filling and lifting heavy buckets of chemical solutions.
In ergonomic movement testing, Rubbermaid Commercial Products’ Microfibre mop delivered a 20 per cent lower movement risk compared with traditional moppingii due to the ergonomic design that positions the mop closer to the body’s core as well as other design improvements such as less physical lifting.
The design must be relevant to the user from a physical and cognitive viewpoint – how they move and how they think. Different commercial environments pose different cleaning and maintenance challenges that must be considered and overcome for a product to be successful.
Just like Howard Head’s skis, feedback from the end user is applied as a stress test at every step of concept design, development to prototype and market-ready production.
Innovative design is more than aesthetics and form – design is beautiful when it delivers superb function or revolutionises the way people work or interact with their surroundings. When products are well-designed, they work so intuitively users hardly notice features like durable construction, advanced materials or ergonomic operation –after all, that’s what good design is all about.
*Alicia Fenwick is senior manager, Brand Marketing at Rubbermaid Commercial Products
 John A. Cogliandro Intelligent Innovation: Four Steps to Achieving a Competitive Edge 2007 p34-37.
 Australian DorsiVi ViSafe testing November 2016
This first appeared in the September/October issue of INCLEAN magazine.