There are a host of trends to consider at the outset of product development, forcing those considering trends to identify which are the most relevant to the task at hand. One way to help do so is to frame the trends in the context of the product users or other product stakeholders. For the rest of this chapter, we use Herman Miller’s Mirra chair as an example of how trends can be identified and presented in the context of a person, a representative of a key customer type, Tom.
Tom had become an expert on chairs. Not because he was interested in fashion trends in the furniture industry, but simply because, at the age of 50, he was suffering from severe back problems. Like many aging baby boomers, Tom was facing an illness that had evolved over the past decade. The doctor called it a life-limiting illness, but Tom had no time for limitations.
After the proper diagnosis was made, that his back problem was a form of arthritis, the challenge was how to thrive in spite of a disability that affects not only every moment of your waking life but also your sleep. Office seating, more accurately called task seating, is a major challenge to back comfort. Tom started looking into the different types of chairs available to him at work and found that none of them were comfortable, especially over time. He had been able to sample a few, but each time, he ended up using the money-back guarantee. His car seat was better than most seats he sat in at home or at work, and he could not figure out why no one could make a chair as comfortable as his car seat. His wife stumbled on a catalog at a friend’s house, the friend with all the “designer” furniture. Not that her friend’s furniture was any more comfortable than his own; it was a style thing. Even so, he browsed the catalog, Design Within Reach (DWR), finding chairs that never appeared in the local office Depot inventory. one in particular, called the Aeron chair, interested him because he had seen that chair become popular in high-flying dot-coms. What caught his attention was that the Aeron was classified as ergonomic. He had thought the Aeron was only a status symbol, one heavily sought out by start-ups that wanted the appearance of stability, not that it was a chair to alleviate back and shoulder pain. The names of the guys who designed it, Chadwick and stumpf, were in the catalog, and so was a reference to Herman Miller, the company that manufactured the chair. Intrigued, he looked the company up on the Web.
The Aeron chair was there with a slew of other chairs. All of Herman Miller’s chairs had good ergonomics, which meant they were alternatives to his car seat. The big new chair was not the Aeron, but the Mirra chair. He had seen the chair in the DWR catalog, but it carried more intrigue on the Herman Miller Web site. Herman Miller presented the chair primarily as an ergonomic solution, with “total back support,” a result of four years of research and development. When he looked back at the DWR catalog, the chair was surprisingly inexpensive, priced less than the Aeron and less than most competitors’ task chairs. The next day at work, Tom filled out a work order for a Mirra chair, taking a walk on the wild side and getting it in lime green.
After sitting on the chair for a week, he had much less pain, could work longer, and could concentrate better. sure, the chair cost almost twice as much as the chairs the company normally provided, but he was more than twice as productive. He figured he had actually made up the difference in cost in the first week alone. He had actually saved the company a fortune in terms of better quality work time at the office. Now everyone asks him about his chair—after all, it is hard to ignore the lime green—and he has evolved into being the company advocate for comfortable seating. He even eventually got his purchasing agent to start ordering directly from Herman Miller, saving some money to obtain not just ergonomics but looks. For him, the comfort was the best thing, but he also relished the fact that the chair is a conversation piece and is the best-looking chair in the office. The youngest office workers love how it looks, and the oldest workers just feel better the minute they sit down.
Over time, as Tom continued to research ergonomics and furniture design, trying to help the company achieve not just physical comfort but visual appeal as well, he found new insights into innovations and evolving objectives in the furniture design industry. For instance, he became familiar with the idea of universal design, that a number of companies are trying to design products that are universally acceptable, or at least they are careful to explain why their product is not intended for any particular group’s use if that is the case.
When you order a prescription, you often get two types of tops. One is child-proof, whereas the other is actually easy to open. Neither top is universal. If you have young children, you need a child-proof lid; if you are older and have limited hand strength, you want an easy-opening lid. Possibly, some company or someone will find a way to have one lid, a universal top that achieves both objectives. But the Mirra was different. It was a chair for everyone; it was a universal design like that universal top.
Tom is one of many office workers at all levels dealing with back and repetitive stress injuries. There are now experts in ergonomics, sometimes called human-factor experts, who can design a work environment to minimize the impact of long-term task seating in the workplace. The chairs designed by the best office furniture companies are now being made available to consumers, just like the best industrial – grade butcher knives have begun to appear in consumer kitchen catalogs. As many people age, they find they need a host of new products to help them stay active and fully functional, where “fully functional” to them means that their bodies will continue to perform like 30-year-old bodies instead of 50-year-old ones. They have disposable income and are happy to part with it if it pays for products that deliver. They have no time or patience for inferior substitutes.
The Toms of the world are legion, now that baby boomers are feeling the aches of aging. While appealing to this market and the broader market of those generally seeking ergonomic support in the office environment, Herman Miller has the daunting task of continuing the success of the Aeron, one of the few office furniture pieces ever to attain the status of public sensation. By any measure, the Aeron chair has been one of the most successful office chairs in the past 50 years. Herman Miller was looking for the next big design. How do you improve on a breakthrough success and make it competitive in a tough economy? By understanding the trends laid out by Tom and converting that understanding into a product.