Herman Miller’s Aeron was a disruptive product. Before Aeron’s launch, the chair market was a dull market, not many options, tough for anybody to differentiate between various cushy upholstered chairs. Designers/manufacturers listened carefully to buyers, users and made products more cushy, soft. On the contrast, the Aeron Chair looked differently, worked differently and priced differently.

NEXT GENERATION OF CUSTOMERS

For disruptive innovation, focusing on next generation of customers, and non-customers are important.

Clayton Christensen says, “Best firms succeeded because they listened responsibly to customers, invested aggressively in technology, manufacturing abilities, designed wonderful products to meet the next generation needs. Same best firms failed after some time, because they listened to SAME customers, invested again, designed again to meet next generation needs”

The dot-com boom had brought a new working culture, a peculiar office environment – where people were forced to sit for longer hours. People were getting into a lot of health problems, back spasms, spinal injury, neck and hand pains – there was a drop in people’s performance, productivity – large scale insurance payouts for treating ailments – lawsuits. Herman Miller saw there was an untapped market in office furniture category. The company called Bill Stumpf and Chadwick to design the new chairs.

OBSERVATIONAL RESEARCH

As it is said, “The first thing in designing a product is “To See Things Clearly” than “Think Things Clearly”. It was important to have a blank mind, observe users, environment.

Bill Stumpf, being a son of Gerontology Nurse was already a keen observer of Human Behaviour. He had experience in designing chairs for Elderly. Most of the ergonomically designed products meant for elderly would work effectively for everyone else. Bill Stumpf had observed how elderly people with their weakened legs, hands struggle to use La-z-Boys recliners, how the controls were in awkward positions, how the fleshy soft cushions were creating bed sores, how they struggle due to uneven weight distribution.

Bill Stumpf could relate the same problems with the office chair users as they too spend a considerable amount of time sitting in one place. Moreover, he could see that people were using keyboards on lap, over the table – Users were using chairs in multiple angles. The same chairs needed to be used for meetings, where people needed to stand often. He could see people struggle to support their elbows, heat transfer from the body, spinal injuries and so on.

REFRAME

A client hires a designer to find a solution for his problem and not to implement his solution.

After detailed research, Bill Stumpf felt that he needed to solve a problem of ergonomics, comfort rather than working on the aesthetic refinement of chairs. He convinced Herman Miller’s management team to tread on an unknown new path to be a market leader. He and Chadwick set on a path to solve the problem of office seating.

Promise a better life and not a better product to customers.

Bill Stumpf focused on providing the best comfort to his customers – Simplify the life of users – Designing a most imaginable ergonomic chair.

OUTSIDE IN DESIGN APPROACH

Instead of “Inside Out” approach, Designers take “Outside-In” approach, as we could see that Bill Stumpf started with Understanding the problems of users.

  • Bill Stumpf, “Human form is a biomorphic- Curved form, there are no straight lines. The chair has to support this curvy form – a molded flexible part which could take the shape fo MES’s Biomorphism design.

(Image Source – Creating Breakthrough products by Jonathan Cagan)

  • Traditional chair manufacturers were designing Single sized chairs, with ergonomics being focused on 50th percentile users. Those chairs had many adjustable parts to accommodate the various body types. With an in-depth research, Aeron design team came out with 3 sizes of chairs and it covered 2.5 percentile female to 97.5 percentile males. This simplified life of many people.

(Image Source – Creating Breakthrough products by Jonathan Cagan)

  • The seating mechanisms were designed to ease users in shifting their positions or shifting their postures to perform various tasks.
  • Designed a new Hinge Mechanism to provide independent movements for seat pan and back of the chair to reduce undue stress on the back and support multiple angles. Can you believe that Bill Stumpf tried to design a hinge to avoid shirt coming out of the pants?
  • Maximum support for shoulders – Wider at the top than at the bottom – This was opposite to what was common among other types of furniture.
  • Adjustable armrests for elbow supports – for better support, fixed to back rather than the bottom of the seat pan – Even elderly could use it.
  • Seat pan edges were designed to reduce pressure and space below the seat pan were designed for consumers to fold the legs often under the seat – A notable observation came from designing for an elderly segment.
  • Avoiding Bedsores – Bill Stumpf believed that Skin is a breathing organ and he hated those chairs covered in fabric, which were hot and sticky under continuous use. Along with one of the vendors, the design team came out with a new breathable material that could help in distribution of heat – People could maintain even heat both at the front and back.
  • The team further designed frame in such a way that weight could be transferred smoothly from the mesh to the solid frame, thereby avoiding the formation of pressure on body or legs.
  • Controls were positioned for easy access and designed for easy to control – Usable and Useful Controls. Earlier chairs – to adjust the settings, you need to get out of their chair. Herman Miller changed this.
  • The chair was designed to reduce the spinal compression, allow kinesthetic motion, the optimal ergonomic positioning of elbows to reduce Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
  • The design team wanted the chair to be light weight and appear lighter. The design has to appear simpler and show that the product is extremely engineered for comfort. – The inspiration was “Thonet” chair.

The final design was slender. People would see all the mechanisms. Stretchable material with pores was an unimaginable solution for consumers. It was counter to consumer’s thoughts, expectations.

CONCLUSION

The final product appeared like a pre-historic exoskeleton insect. Nevertheless, the product made people note. One vendor kept the chair sample near one of the roadside windows and he could hear screeching halt of car tires. The chair’s weird looks became a great selling point. People who used continuously for a longer period realized the benefits of bodily comfort and the word spread.

References: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Creating Breakthrough Products by Jonathan Cagan, Purple Cow by Seth Godin, The untold story of Aeron-article from the fast company, What great brands do by Denise Lee, Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christenson, Designing for Growth – Tim Ogilvie.

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