The Business Of Selling A ‘Disruptive Innovation’-An Example

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Herman Miller’s “Aeron” Chair was a disruptive product. Before Aeron’s launch, the chair market was dull and had only a few options. It is tough for anybody to differentiate between various cushy upholstered chairs. Designers/manufacturers listened carefully to buyers, users and made products more cushy and softer. On the other hand, the new Aeron Chair looked differently, worked differently and priced differently.

Though the Aeron chair was extremely comfortable, the initial market feedback showed a negative response to 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?

Note: You cannot plan, how you are going to sell after you’ve designed the product. It has to happen while you are designing the product. Some of the elements that would help in selling have to be incorporated in the design stage itself.

For some time, Bill Stumpf, an Industrial Designer, was observing the changes in workplace brought up by the emerging dot-com boom. The working culture had undergone a radical change. Employees were forced to sit for long hours. They were getting into a lot of health problems, back spasms, spinal injury, neck and hand pains. Their performance levels dipped. Their productivity began to lag. There were large-scale insurance payouts for treating ailments and also lawsuits.

Based on his research, Bill Stumpf felt that ‘Re-design’ of the chair could be the solution for all those employee health problems. He firmly believed that he had to solve the problem of ergonomics, comfort rather than working on the aesthetic refinement of chairs. The new design had to focus on providing the best comfort to his customers. With the goal of simplifying the life of users, Bill Stumpf took on a journey of designing a most imaginable ergonomic chair.

Herman Miller’s communication should be to ‘Promise a better life and not a better product’ to customers.

Positioning is about creating 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.

Considering that the brand must enter into a consumer’s mind, Herman Miller created a new category for Aeron Chairs — Extremely Engineered Ergonomic Chairs for utmost comfort.

Finding a Niche Market. Start small. Focus on a particular need, work on it, make your product distinctive and dominate the niche market. Smaller the segment, it is easier for the entire company to focus and meet the customer needs, wants and desires. Once you become a leader in the niche market, you could move to the larger markets

Documentum introduced the 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 the 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.

Initially, Herman Miller had a tough time to sell the Aeron chair, as common customers complained about the weird looks. Tabloids called the product as “Chair of Death”. People did not appreciate the extreme engineering. Herman Miller team realized that they had to target a niche. The best segment would be those who would appreciate the new design exploration. 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 a similar segment of people in various fields — The product’s usage spread from the 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 — People directing TV shows, films used the product in their programmes- Disney got interested and bought many for their offices — then people who are adventurous got attracted by the product — then the new age CEOs of new digital startup companies were fascinated by the product and they bought and finally the product spread to mainstream offices.

CREATE NEW MEANINGS

We have got to start with customer experience and work backwards to technology — Steve Jobs.

The Aeron chair was extremely engineered for great comfort, to simplify the user’s life, to provide a healthy life, increase productivity and 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 at 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 warned Herman Miller that it would be impossible to sell the chair without solid fabric, to corporate clients without solid fabric and even suggested to cover it up. But Herman Miller believed in their team’s problem-solving methodologies and kept their focus. They never wavered.

DESIGN FOR VIRALITY

Design for Observability — Aeron chair had a contrasting look than other contemporary chairs — Slender model, stretched fibers, exoskeleton structure, black molded plastic, neatly done & clearly visible mechanical parts and a robotic appearance to provide a feeling of a top-notch engineered product.

People wondered whether the thin frame could hold their weight —They were 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.

The brochures showed how product supported various postures and how people were comfortable in those postures.

The weird looks were becoming a major selling point and forcing people to have a look at the product.

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

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

  • The brochures/communications had “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, and 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 a wide range of postures (Posture-fit was a strong point of Aeron Chair)
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Design for Trialability — Herman Miller team saw that the potential customers who could spend only a small amount of time with the chair got limited experience. That was insufficient to judge the product. This resulted in negative reviews for the product. Herman Miller realized that they need to let people use the product for a longer time. So, they asked those skeptic customers to use it for a longer period. The reactions of those skeptic customers changed for the good. They loved the product. They were amazed at how the product felt so comfortable, without all the traditional upholstery and foam. They firmly believed that the chair 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 continuously.

Design for Sustainable Environment — At the time of Aeron chair’s launch, Environment Sustainability was just catching up. When Bill Stumpf stressed removing the molded foam completely from the chair, the other executives in the company were largely relieved. 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 decided to scale its production of the old chair. So they were very happy when the new chair was designed without foam. They believed that the new design would help in environmental sustainability. Further, Herman Miller used recyclable materials wherever possible and 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. They had 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 but those controls were very complicated and difficult to use. 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. The level of required adjustments had come down drastically.

Users could easily customize their chair position to suit an individual’s comfortable posture.

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.

Written by

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com

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