Herman Miller’s “Aeron” Chair 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.

Though the product was extremely comfortable, the initial market feedback showed a negative response for the product. The people termed the product ugly and hated it. One tabloid called the product “The Chair of Death”. But Herman Miller turned it around and made “Aeron” a “Design Classic”. How they made it?

SOLVING A PROBLEM

Bill Stumpf, the Aeron Chair designer observed that 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.

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

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

POSITIONING

Positioning is to create an impression of our brand or product in a consumer’s mind. We need to provide a reference. Generally, consumers will remember instantly one or two brands/products in any category. Example- Pepsi and Coke in Cola category, Redbull, and Monster in Energy Drink category.

Since we need to enter into a consumer’s mind, Herman Miller created a new category for Aeron Chairs – Extremely Engineered Ergonomic Chairs for utmost comfort.

NICHE MARKET

Documentum introduced Electronic Document Management System in 1993. To start with, the company targeted a niche – Regulatory affairs department in Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies(Where the User pain is high – They need to file a minimum of 250,000 to 500,000 documents). The product’s usage spread from Regulatory department to Research department as both the departments had frequent interactions. The Document management system penetrated to manufacturing floor from research department – From manufacturing floor to plant construction & maintenance – from plant maintenance to external vendors/contractors and then to Regulated chemicals – to non-regulated chemicals & Oil refineries and then to Oil exploration & production – IT department – to properties – to Wallstreet -to swaps and derivative business.

Similarly, Herman Miller had a tough time to sell the product, as common customers complained about the weird looks. Tabloids called the product is “Chair of Death”. People did not appreciate the extreme engineering. So, Herman Miller focussed on Designers and Architects. They were very open to the radical design. Being designers themselves, they appreciated the user-centric approach and the functional aesthetics. The product got “Design of the Decade” award from IDSA which further helped to spread the word.

The company then targeted similar segment of people in various fields – The product’s usage spread from design field to pop culture which promoted the product further – then to Entertainment Industry – Hollywood picked it up – People working on special effects were using the product – TV shows, films – Disney got interested – then to adventurous people – new age CEOs of new digital startup companies – then spread to offices.

DESIGNED TO CREATE NEW MEANINGS

We have got to start with customer experience and work backward to technology – Steve Jobs.

The Aeron chair was extremely engineered for great comfort, simplify the life of the user, provide healthy life, increase productivity, keep them fresh.

Biomorphic form to fit human body curvature, Hinge design to make seat pan and back move independently, elbow supports, breathable fabric to create even heat distribution and avoid bedsores ate the back, seat pan edge designed to avoid pressures on legs, design to reduce spine compression, back pain, Controls which are easy to use and easy to access even for elderly, wider support for shoulders, even weight distribution and reduction of body stresses, support users to shift positions and postures easily and so on.

An invention becomes meaningful when it provides a new meaning to consumer’s life.

DEADLY FOCUS

The facility managers, ergonomic experts, common users have vehemently opposed the mesh, visibility of exoskeleton structure, mechanisms in the chair, though they appreciated the functionality of Aeron Chair. Many of them suggested to cover the Aeron with solid fabric and warned Herman Miller that it would be impossible to sell to corporate clients without solid fabric. But Herman Miller believed their team’s problem-solving methodologies.

DESIGN FOR VIRALITY

Design for Observability – Aeron chair had a contrasting look than other contemporary chairs – Slender model, stretched fibers, appearance like an exoskeleton structure, Black molded plastic, mechanisms that were clearly visible, but neatly done, a robotic feel to provide a feel of top notch engineered product.

People could take note of the product wherever they see. The wider support for shoulders necessitated top of the chair is wider than at the bottom – creating a bigger impression among all other contemporary chairs – visually simulating a human being body.

One vendor placed a sample of Aeron chair in front of the roadside window and he could hear screeching halt of cars.

The weird looks were becoming a major selling point and forcing people to have a look at the product. The brochures showed how product supported various postures and how people were comfortable in those postures.

People wondered whether the thin frame could hold their weight – tentative about sitting on the chair – Thin frames with a broader back provided a cognitive visual imbalance in the mind.

Maximum support for shoulders – top of the chair was broader than the bottom – completely different from other competitors and visually resembling a human body.

Design for persuasion – The product was designed in such a way to remove any uncertainties in user’s mind.

  • The brochures/communications carried “How to Use the various controls” explained in an easier way to make people aware of it.
  • Herman Miller team communicated “Principles Knowledge” – The reasons behind the design of each and every feature – How the new design could solve potential health problems – The pains it would help a user to avoid – how those movements help in reducing back stress, spinal compression, pains in legs, elbows, neck.
  • The controls were positioned in a way – easy to access, easy to relate to the movement, easy to use – it was easy for people to figure about the controls and understand how to use the product.
  • The back stretchable material texture was designed to provide intimate comfort for the user and the consumer could feel the same when he uses the chair.
  • They worked on critical touch points of customer – The elbow rests and the Seat edge pads were specially designed to provide comfort, smooth texture and reduce pressure on legs and stress of elbows.
  • Herman Miller team got testimonials of early adopters-customers who used products for some time, some scientific data of Aeron chair, problems with the existing chair, data on potential health hazards, Aeron chair’s kinematics, Posture-fit advantages, Breathable material and communicated it to potential customers.
  • Breathability – Users could feel that air can flow through the pores in the Pellicle material stretched over the frame and was surprised by the material’s comfort.
  • Their brochures carried images of how to use the product and how the product supported wide range of postures (Posture-fit was a strong point of Aeron Chair)

Design for Trialability – People got limited experience with the product when they could spend a small amount of time and that was not enough to judge the product. Negative reviews may start pouring in. Herman Miller asked people to use the product for a longer time – Their reactions, in most cases, changed – They were amazed that it could be so comfortable, without all the traditional upholstery and foam. It was an ultimate comfort machine. Looking at thin frames, the users had a fear whether the product would hold the weight, but they were pleasantly surprised when they used the product.

Design for Sustainable Environment – Environment Sustainability was just catching up in those circles. When Bill Stumpf stressed on removing the molded foam completely from the chair, the other executives could understand that it would help in environmental sustainability and help in bottom line too. The executives and the workers were tired of the smell from hanging foam(Kept for curing) in the chair manufacturing plant. They were worried about the large-scale impact of foam if the company needed to scale its production. Herman Miller used recyclable materials, got environmental certifications, which further increased the value of the product.

Design for Social Status – The middle and upper middle class exhibited a stronger concern for Social Status. There were a strong desire and craving for a social identity. The chair became a fashionable statement for consumers.

Seth Godin, after getting his first venture check, went and bought more than a dozen Aeron chairs that got him into front page of wall street journal

Buying an Aeron’s chair sent a message to the public about who you are.

Design for compatibility – The chair resembled a human body form with broad shoulders and smaller hip – visually informed that it would suit the human body. The mesh being porous helped the chair to merge with the interiors of the offices. Design team’s high degree of empathy assured that the product met the essential needs of the users.

Design for customization – 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. Many adjustment mechanisms allow its user to customize the chair to suit the particular task at hand as well as specific body heights and weights.

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, Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.

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