Quality Magazine

Design: Design that Means Business

August 27, 2009


There are an almost infinite number of products on Earth that could bear the term appliance. And as inhabitants of this planet, we interact with and depend on these products at almost every given moment of the day. While the array of such products is certainly vast, it could be argued that two distinct categories exist: appliances that serve consumers’ needs within the home setting, and appliances that serve some business function outside the home setting. And to these two definitions two names can be given: consumer appliances and professional/commercial appliances, respectively.

Professional/commercial appliances include business machines, medical devices, commercial foodservice equipment, contractor power tools, professional communications devices, and many other products. While industrial design issues surrounding professional/commercial appliances share many similarities with those of consumer appliances, professional/commercial appliance design is subject to some of its own considerations.

The intuitive touchscreen interface on the Medtronic Integrated Power Console is an example of how usability is emphasized in critical devices. The unit also demonstrates how pleasing aesthetics can be combined with functionality. (image: Metaphase Design Group)

Functionality and Human Factors

Professional/commercial appliances are marked by functionality that is intuitive, focused, and familiar to the user, with robust construction, high reliability, and a particular emphasis on ergonomics and safety.

While consumer appliances vary functionally and tend to provide users with more options, accommodating a large user base, professional/commercial appliances are intended to facilitate work functions, and, therefore, present the user with an unambiguous interface with a limited number of options, says Mathieu Turpault, managing partner, director of design, at Bresslergroup, Philadelphia, Pa.

Because users of professional/commercial appliances typically have a high level of experience with a certain product category, such appliances usually present the operator with familiar functionality, regardless of the manufacturer. While meeting the user’s expectations cultivates work efficiencies, it also is important for ensuring safety, especially because in many situations professional/commercial appliances are used in hazardous applications. Brian Chiarizia, IDSA, manager of industrial design for HumanCentric, Cary, N.C., points out that because of the more constant use associated with professional/commercial appliances, they tend to be larger and heavier, meaning that the appliances themselves could pose safety issues for users, another reason why they are equipped with familiar functionality.

Careful attention to ergonomic design can be seen on the Medtronic Straightshot M4 Microdebrider surgical handpiece. (image: Metaphase Design Group)

Ergonomics also is of great concern in the design of professional/commercial appliances because they often are used repetitively, requiring the design to prevent operator fatigue as much as possible. Another aspect of the ergonomics concern is safety; for example, a medical device designed with poor user ergonomics could potentially result in patient injury or death.

With professional/commercial appliances tradeoffs often are made in terms of qualitative features in favor of enabling work efficiency, says Turpault. For example, perceived comfort and low vibration and sound levels often are sacrificed in the name of creating an end product that is fast, efficient, and reliable. In contrast, consumer appliances are not designed for this context of high and intense workload, ensuring that finer qualitative details-such as low noise and/or low vibration-prevail.

However, regardless of whether the design of a professional/commercial or consumer appliance is in question, products need to be safe, perform to consumer quality expectations, and be intuitive/easy to learn, says Barry H. Beith, Ph.D., CEO and CTO of HumanCentric. Furthermore, ergonomics needs to take precedence over aesthetics, says William Cesaroni, president of Cesaroni Design Associates, Glenview, Ill. A good designer will be able to find a variety of ways to make a product aesthetically appealing; however, there may not be more than one good ergonomic solution.

Finally, standards exist for features and factors such as knob and pull sizes, appropriate noise and vibration thresholds, and symbol usage. Adhering to industry standards and guidelines will help ensure the usability of a product.

The design process for professional/commercial appliances involves an acute focus on ergonomics. Shown is a Böwe Bell + Howell Ngenuity document scanner. (image: Cesaroni Design)

Uncovering User Needs

Whether designing a professional/commercial or consumer appliance, research techniques such as ethnographies and task analysis convey the end users’ articulated and unarticulated needs. In general, the research methods used in the development of both product areas are not distinctly different, says Christina Mendat, Ph.D., senior human factors specialist and manager of human factors for HumanCentric. Within each area there will be a great amount of variability in terms of day-to-day interaction, pain points and general perceptions; therefore, it is important that research involve as many participants as possible, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data.

Mendat says a particular method useful in both areas is the creation of personas and scenarios. Personas are fictitious user groups that represent a target demographic, and scenarios are fictitious workflows encountered by those groups. The method helps drive design in the initial stages of ideation, early concepts, and development. Also, when combined with other concerns, such as iterative design and usability testing, the technique brings further benefits.

While ethnography is thought to mainly belong to consumer appliance research, the method also is powerful for that of the professional/commercial appliance, says Bryce G. Rutter, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group, St. Louis, Mo. Ethnographies connect the designer of a professional/commercial appliance with the end user in the context of day-to-day use of the product. Regardless of whom an appliance is designed for, it is important to achieve a thorough understanding of the context and environment in which the product is to be used.

Turpault says that this sort of insitu research is of preeminent importance regardless of which arena an appliance is being designed for. While it represents a large investment in contrast to alternatives such as focus groups, for example, such research ensures that one is bringing the correct product to market, one that satisfies all end users’ needs.

When end users are studied in the field there are more opportunities to unveil real unmet needs because the end user is observed in context executing a work function. To contrast this, a focus group would entail end users conveying how they believe they use a product, or how one should use a product. But more often than not, says Turpault, how one thinks he uses a product and the reality of actual use often conflict. Furthermore, the validity of focus groups can be obscured further by groupthink, meaning that a dominant personality can influence the comments of other participating individuals.

That research be well executed and thorough carries more weight in the professional/consumer appliance arena because the cost of being wrong can be very high. For example, Rutter says that if one does a less then perfect job eliminating friction points in the design of an espresso maker, the end user may end up with a frustrating experience or a bad cup of coffee. However, if the same occurs in the design of a surgical instrument, people can be injured or die.

At right is a series of sketches showing the different positions in which the user might operate the scanner helped to determine its final design. (image: Cesaroni Design)

Aesthetic Consideration

Contrasted with professional/commercial appliances, consumer appliances are typically sold at lower price points, endure less wear, and have shorter life spans. In light of this, consumer appliances are typically designed with an emphasis on aesthetics over functionality and also tend to incorporate more in the way of current design trends, says Brian Matt, founder and CEO of Altitude, Somerville, Mass. On the other hand, the professional/commercial appliance market is driven more by performance, durability, and reliability.

With that said, aesthetic consideration has been creeping more and more into professional/commercial appliances for some time now. Turpault notes that today manufacturers want to differentiate their products from similar offerings on the market; however, for may appliance types the evolution of functionality innovation has slowed, meaning that most appliances in any given product category will share similar functionality regardless of the manufacturer.

In effort to have their products stand out from the competition, manufacturers will invest more in the aesthetic considerations affecting their products. The idea is that if all products in a certain product segment perform at about the same level and have about the same level of robustness and reliability, the buyers of such appliances will give aesthetics greater weight in their purchasing decisions.

Furthering the point is increased competition. Turpault points out that today many brands that were once only available in Europe are available in the U.S., and vice versa.

Because the person using a professional/consumer appliance is usually not the one buying it, an aesthetic design that conveys durability and cleanability is important to the buyer, says Cesaroni. The buyer expects his investment to be used frequently and intensely, by employees who may or may not treat it with the utmost care. Foodservice appliances, for instance, need to convey an aesthetic design that indicates they can endure the use and abuse of a large, busy staff, while also being easy to clean and maintain. Any indication of fragility or a trendy design should be avoided.

Although aesthetic consideration carries more weight today in the design of professional/commercial appliances than in the past, performance is the more critical attribute of such products. Functionality, ergonomics, and safety are at the forefront of a professional/commercial appliance design, and aesthetics should never interfere with the utility of the product.

Professional/commercial appliances must be robust and reliable enough to withstand intense and frequent use, while providing users with simple, intuitive functionality that is designed with safety and ergonomics in mind. In recent years, manufacturers have invested more in developing refined aesthetics to differentiate their professional/commercial products from the competition.

For more information, visit: Altitude – www.altitudeinc.com
Bresslergroup – www.bresslergroup.com
Cesaroni Design – www.cesaroni.com
HumanCentric – www.humancentric.com
Metaphase Design Group – www.metaphase.com