October 27, 2005

User Centered Products Are Market Winners - An example from Whirlpool

This recent Whirlpool Press Release is just one example of how a company that adopts and uses UCD (I know that Whirlpool has an active UCD/usability team) will create products that win in the marketplace. The press release shows that, by being user-centered, a company knows what product features or attributes have value to different audiences. Often these value points are learned when evaluating designs (e.g. in usability tests).

Here's an excerpt (note that Duet is a high-end model of Whirlpool front-loading washer and dryer):

"[T]he attribute that stands out most prominently with consumers may be the overall design of front loaders, and most prominently the features of the Duet(R). At the time it was introduced it was hailed for its sleek, sophisticated, user-friendly design, garnering praise from an impressive and diverse range of audiences, including the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), whose members appreciate the Duet(R) model's tactile and audible controls.

"We often find that technologically advanced products are difficult for blind people to use, because they often incorporate things like touch screens and LCD displays that require sight," said Betsy Zaboroski, executive director of NFB's Jernigan Institute. "With the Duet, you get the best of both worlds -- it's high tech, but usable by virtually everybody. That's great design."

Other accolades for the Whirlpool Duet(R) fabric care system include:
- The editors of Popular Mechanics, Graphic Design USA Magazine, and Appliance Manufacturer Magazine for design and/or engineering achievement.
- ID Magazine (International Design), one of the design industry's most respected publications, honored the Duet(R) system in its Consumer Products category
- A Human Factors & Ergonomic Society User-Centered Design Award because the pedestal drawers raise the unit off the floor by 13 inches, minimizing bending while providing additional shelf space."


Of course Whirlpool doesn't talk as much about it's usability team as we'd like. Why would you reveal a competitive advantage? But they have had some press. This article says that "Whirlpool assembled a global design team of industrial designers, human factors, and usability specialists from around the world, including Germany, Italy, Great Britain and the United States" to create the Duet line and that it "has been a consumer hit ever since. 'It’s been so successful that we’ve been playing catch up with production capacity,' says Joe Foster, director of Whirlpool Brand Fabric Care. 'We’ve had to invest in additional production capacity twice since the launching in 2001 to keep up with consumer demand.' [Date of article publication unknown.]

FastCompany published an article on Whirlpool's design innovation in June 2005. It's a great read and offers the savvy reader glimpses of usability testing at Whirlpool - in the first paragraph:

"Whirlpool design chief Chuck Jones stands behind a two-way mirror in a dimly lit observation room at the company's headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan. On the other side of the glass are a twentysomething volunteer and a shiny, black refrigerator. Jones and a small team of designers, engineers, and usability specialists watch as the woman loads groceries into the fridge. Her movements are mind-numbingly mundane, but the Whirlpool folks are rapt. "This is a very complex interaction between a user, a product, and her goals," whispers a human-factors expert."

The article goes on to say "At $2,000, the Duet is Whirlpool's most expensive washer-dryer set, yet it sells like an iPod: In the premium front-loading washer category, Whirlpool has gone from a market share of zero to more than 20% in three years."

Those that wonder about the return on investment (ROI) of User Centered Design (UCD) and usability should take note. Of course, I'll take market-disrupting innovative design over generic ROI any day. :-)


See also:
* New Generation of Innovators: Creating Extraordinary Products which talks about the design team at Whirlpool
* Whirlpool Finds Its Cool - To understand what good design can do for the bottom line, check out how Chuck Jones has revved up the sleepy, boring world of refrigerators and washers.
* Whirlpool Relies on Networking to Harmonize its Global Operations
* 2004 World Technology Awards Winners & Finalists - Charles Jones -- a biography of Whirlpool's design chief




1 comment:

Jess McMullin said...

We're moving, buying new appliances. Everything we bought was aimed at getting the best value - in most cases, that meant something from the middle of the product line (fridge, stove, dishwasher). But for the washer, the Duet was so much better than the competition that we bought at the high end (we made up for it in our budget by getting a lower end dryer instead of the matched pair).