Cleaning Up with User Experience

Carroll Gantz holding the DustBuster handheld vacuum cleaner, which he designed.

User experience played a critical role in refining Carroll Gantz’s revolutionary DustBuster handheld vacuum. Credit: idsa.org

Before the iPhone, there was the DustBuster.

Stop laughing. It’s true. And it’s a great lesson about the value of user experience.

In 1978, Carroll Gantz, FIDSA, designed (among other well-known consumer products) Black & Decker’s cordless DustBuster handheld vacuum cleaner. He was an early advocate of the notion that the user is the boss, what has developed into the concept of “user experience.” Gantz actually made his revolutionary appliance noisier because consumers who tried it out in early tests didn’t think it sounded very powerful.

But not all product designers (or engineers) believe in, or are comfortable with, consulting with the end user on their experience.

I found this out early on, as an industrial design major in college. I competed to earn an internship working with Gantz at Black & Decker. The challenge: design a new piece of exercise equipment.

I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about exercise equipment, so I did something crazy:  I called another university’s sports medicine clinic and made an appointment to observe the therapists at work for a day. I also questioned them about their work with patients and about movements that could enhance a person’s health.

I won the internship and got to work with Carroll Gantz, who entrusted me with a design update on the DustBuster, adding a third battery for longer run time.

But I also got in trouble with my instructors.

According to them, a designer should simply design beautiful things and exceed the consumer’s expectations. The designer should NEVER ask the consumers what they want! Consumers don’t know! They’ll tell you something ugly! What were you thinking?

What I was thinking was that the people who would actually USE the equipment provided a unique window into how to DESIGN the equipment. I never asked anyone what they WANTED; I simply asked them what their NEEDS were and created my design using that insight.

In fact, my experiences on that project and the focus groups I ran with Carroll Gantz during my internship changed the direction of my entire career. I went on to become a market researcher and consumer strategist. And ever since then, I’ve been asking consumers questions in order to discover new products, new services, new packaging ideas and more, all to help businesses grow. User experience is at the core of my research.

Designers and Engineers are types of very creative people – they make something where there was nothing before. But sometimes, when working with them on a consumer research study, I’ve noticed that they can become very anxious. Some have even become downright hostile. Once, an engineer for baby products told me his team “doesn’t need a bunch of moms telling us how to do our jobs.”

I understand their reaction – a bunch of strangers might come in and call their baby ugly. They are smart, dedicated professionals who are worried that all of their hard work will be damaged by those consumers – the people who don’t really know what they want. Moms don’t necessarily realize the limitations of materials, or production lines, or price points.

In such a situation, I remind them that the user experience research we’re doing is part of a process to make the product better, or to learn how to communicate about the product in a way that is worthy of the design. More often than not, the research shows us that we have to change the way we talk about the product, not change the product itself.

Focusing on the user experience – all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services and its products – actually makes us better at design, at engineering, and (bonus!) at making money.

 

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