A disruptive product enters a market because the existing businesses failed to meet the emerging needs of customers.
Nike disrupted the shoe market because the giants Adidas and Puma had ignored the needs/pains of athletes.
Walmart disrupted the ‘discounting store’ market because other brands KMart, Target, Woolworths ignored the needs of people living in smaller towns having a population of less than 5000.
Herman Miller’s Aeron chair disrupted the office furniture market because the chair manufacturers ignored the needs/pains of people who had to sit for long hours in a working place.
In the early 1990s, the technology startups proliferated. It brought a new working culture where people had to sit for long hours. The employees began to experience several health problems -back spasms, spinal injury, neck, and hand pains. It affected their performance and mental strength. They badly needed a solution. Unfortunately, none of the chairs available in the market met their requirements. Every manufacturer focused more on aesthetics than comfort. They made products cushier and softer. They believed that customers also wanted the same. Every upholstered chair appeared similar to each other.
In this scenario, Herman Miller launched the Aeron Chair, which had an unusual appearance. It worked differently and priced differently.
Though the chair was extremely comfortable, the market initially reacted negatively to the product. People were uncomfortable with the chair’s aesthetics as it didn’t fit the definition of chair instilled in their minds. The people termed the product ugly and hated it. A magazine called the furniture as The Chair Of Death.
However, Herman Miller overcame all those objections and sold the product in record numbers. The chair became a Design Classic. How did Herman Miller achieve success? What could we learn?
SELLING IS TO SOLVE A PROBLEM
Everyone is interested in themselves. The customers are not interested in our product’s benefits but how it would solve their problem. Innovations happen when you try to solve a customer’s pain.
Lee Iacocca, Former Ford Chairman, says that selling is about solving customer problems. If you do not understand the customer well, you cannot sell any product. You would be wasting time and losing credibility.
However, marketing can solve a customer problem only with the help of efficient design. Without the right design, marketing could make only empty promises. So, for effective selling, some of the elements that would help in marketing the product have to be incorporated in the design stage itself.
Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, designers of Aeron chair, firmly believed that design’s purpose is to solve the problem faced by a customer rather than working only on the aesthetics of the product. They didn’t want to be known as a stylist. That wasn’t interesting for them. From childhood, through building model airplanes and trains, they had developed a personal liking for mechanics. They loved to work on something that involved mechanisms.
The purpose of mechanisms is to solve a problem.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FAILURE IN A SUCCESS
One of the strong reasons behind every successful business was their earlier failures.
In the early 2000s, Jeff Bezos launched ‘Amazon Auctions’ to counter the threat of eBay. The venture failed. Later he started zShops — a platform for sellers to operate their fixed-price shops on Amazon.com. However, he had to close it down soon due to the lack of customers. Fortunately, both these failures taught him valuable lessons. It helped him in the successful launch of Amazon Marketplace at a later time.
Failures are an inevitable part of a business. It solidly improves our forthcoming performances and assures a bright future.
Aeron became a meaningful product for customers because of Herman Miller’s earlier failed projects -’The Equa’ Chair and ‘The Sarah’ Chair. Bill Stumpf and Chadwick designed those chairs. Both of them learned valuable lessons from those projects.
Herman Miller approached Bill and Don to create a desirable and comfortable chair for the elderly.
For meaningful design, Bill and Don believed in a deeper understanding of the target customers. Therefore, they observed many people both in the residential and medical contexts.
Watching how users interacted with the product, Bill and Don made the following observations -
- They found that users employed single furniture in several ways in both residential and medical settings. One of the commonly used furniture was La-Z-Boys. This chair was used for dialysis in a semi-reclined position in hospitals and also used at home to watch TV for hours.
- The elderly shifted their bodies every few minutes. The studies showed that upholstery retained too much heat, compelling the users to change their postures to seek a more relaxed spot. Unfortunately, elderly who could not frequently shift their positions suffered from bedsores. It was a critical pain point.
- Their weak legs made it difficult for them to sit in the chair without falling backward.
- They also found it challenging to access the control levers as it was positioned far away from their usually reachable positions.
Though the La-Z-Boys chair did not meet the application requirements, the customers used the product due to a lack of choices.
Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick began to design a chair that could solve those critical problems. They redesigned the footrest to overcome the problem of weak legs. They made space under the chair so that users could fold the legs under the seat. Bill and Don removed the existing levers and designed new control buttons that appeared similar to buttons found on airplane seats. They positioned those buttons in easily accessible positions. The elderly found it easy to use those buttons. Bill and Don also introduced pneumatic control systems to actuate various motions.
However, the most critical problem they solved was -The Bedsores caused by uneven heat distribution.
Bill and Don found two factors that could help in solving the problem -
- One of the reasons behind uneven heat distribution was the flat shape of the chair upholstery. It caused irregular stress points in the body as the human figure is a biomorphic-curved form. Bill and Don felt that the chair’s back support has to match that contour. They modified the shape of the posterior support foam to match the curvy form of the human body. It was a radical design at that time. Bill and Don adopted this biomorphic shape in the Aeron chair.
- Bill and Don observed that lack of ventilation also resulted in retaining the body heat. While designing the Equa chair, they actively searched for a way to increase ventilation. They pondered various ideas. How about upholstery with holes? How about making the foam as thin as possible? Bill and Don experimented with the foam material and the support frame. They tried a stretchable plastic fabric and spread it across a plastic frame. -This idea laid the foundation for the mesh construction in the Aeron chair. It was one of the most influential innovations in office furniture.
The Sarah chair was a revolutionary product and addressed all the essential problems faced by aging people. Unfortunately, Herman Miller’s design head rejected the prototype. The new chair did not fit his idea of an aesthetically appealing chair. It shattered the designer’s dreams.
Though the chair didn’t see the light, Bill and Don adopted many features from the product in designing the Aeron chair.
A project may fail for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, in addition to looking for the causes of failure, it would help if we also focused on what features did work or what were the good things in the project.
Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick took valuable features from Sarah and Equa chair projects. Examples -User’s ergonomics data, body sizes, seating comfort, mesh structure for ventilation, the shape of control buttons, positioning of those controls, and the biomorphic form of the back support. They also learned their weaknesses — capabilities/skills they lacked. It helped them to hire the right person to overcome those limitations while designing the Aeron chair.
In the early 90s, Herman Miller faced severe competition. Lack of new launches hampered its growth. It needed an innovative product to sustain its leadership. Also, to infuse energy into its employees. The management team began to think of several possibilities. One option popped out -The Sarah Chair. They pondered whether that furniture could be launched afresh with few modifications as they felt it was an innovative product.
After due deliberation, the management team approached Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick and presented the opportunity to design a new office chair using some of the ideas from Sarah’s chair.
Bill and Don agreed to work on the product with a prerequisite to pitch the idea directly to the executive board, rather than just to the company’s design director with whom they had disagreed earlier. The management accepted their request.
Thus the design journey began.
The first step for any new business is to ponder how to occupy space inside a target consumer’s mind, which is called Brand Positioning. It is nothing but a consumer’s perception of a brand compared to competing brands. It is about how different a brand is from competing brands. The differentiation comes from the unique value a brand offers to the customer.
Why does your brand need to enter his or her mind?
- If you ask a consumer to name a cola drink, ‘Coke’ name will spurt out.
- If you ask about a photocopying brand, ‘Xerox’ name will burst out.
- If you ask them the name of an energy drink, the red bull name will rush out.
- If you ask an Indian to name a noodles brand, ‘Maggi’ name would jet out most of the time.
How do customers recall these brand names immediately? Because those names stay at the top of the consumer’s mind. How did those brands achieve it?
- Coke is the first cooldrink to enter the consumer’s mind under the Cola category.
- Seven-up is the first cooldrink under the Un-cola category.
- Redbull is the first cooldrink under the ‘energy drink’ category.
- Xerox is the first brand under the ‘photocopying’ category.
The above brands show that the easiest way to get into a person’s mind is to be first. Being №1 in a consumer’s mind will help a business to grab a significant market share and build a sustainable business.
So, how can a business enter a consumer’s mind by being first? The brand has to create a new category that doesn’t exist in a consumer’s mind.
How To Create A New Category? -The unique value offerings a brand can offer to the customer will help in establishing the new category. For accomplishing that, the first step is to choose potential customers -Find a Niche Market. Later, the brand should observe customers’ needs, desires, and pains. The research will help the brand to determine unique value propositions that will solve the customer’s pains and also meet the business’ strengths and core values.
FINDING A NICHE MARKET
The general rule for positioning is to find a niche market. Focus on a particular customer’s need, work on it, solve it through your product/service, and dominate the niche market. Smaller the segment, the easier it is for the company to focus and meet its customer needs, wants, and desires. Once you become a leader in the niche market, you can spread your footprints into other markets.
Herman Miller’s team actively searched for a niche market.
During the early 1990s, the low-cost PCs and the growing network infrastructure inspired a host of technological startups. The computers became extremely common in offices. A new working culture emerged, forcing people to sit for long hours.
Long hours of uninterrupted sitting finally began to take a toll on the employees. They got several health problems -back spasms, spinal injury, neck, and hand pains. Their performance levels dropped, raising concerns for the leadership team.
As computer-related injuries rose, employers faced lawsuits from disgruntled employees. The companies had to shell out a large sum of money for treating ailments. They searched for ways to overcome those problems. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find any solution.
Herman Miller sensed a potential opportunity -A target segment with unresolved pain & they were searching for ways to overcome the challenge. The chair manufacturer believed that the brand could solve this problem.
The next step in positioning your brand is to create a unique value proposition for the customer. It means solving a customer’s critical pains/problems. To understand their difficulties, we have to observe customers in their natural context.
Bill and Don visited many offices, observed people, spoke to them, watched how they interacted with the chair, and how they used the chair to access nearby work areas. They noticed the subtle shifts of body postures by employees for every few minutes. The designers also saw a slight discomfort in their faces during those body movements. It was similar to how aged people faced problems with La-Z-Boys chair.
“We started to realize that people were interacting with computers and keyboards in all sorts of positions. They’d have the keyboard in their lap. Or they’d be at their desk slouching back, semi-reclined,” — Chadwick.
Bill and Stumpf also observed that chairs were categorized based on the rankings in the office -Secretary, Manager, and Executive levels. However, they believed that the furniture should be categorized based on the levels of comfort.
They also recognized the shifts in customer’s attitudes.
- The silicon employees no longer liked flamboyant, overcrowded designs. They preferred sleek forms. ‘Less is More’ is the way forward.
- The users were becoming less body-conscious. It means that the body shapes and sizes are here to stay. So, a chair has to meet various body sizes.
With the necessary user research data, Bill and Don began their journey of designing a comfortable chair for their customers.
Promise a better life and not a better product for customers.
CONSUMERS BUY EXPERIENCES, NOT PRODUCTS
Starbucks, in their initial years, sold only authentic coffee beans. Howard Schultz, who became CEO in the mid-1980s, changed everything. He began to sell espressos in his stores. He redesigned the interiors to encourage people to sit, relax, and drink coffee. His stores provided a multisensory experience to the customers -what they saw, touched, heard, and tasted. He gave particular attention to ‘Aroma’ as it plays a vital role in the store experience. He made sure that the smell of brewing coffee alone lingered to welcome the consumers. Howard also trained Baristas on the art of creating delightful conversations with the customers and build personal relationships with them. All those service activities, features made customers feel that the store was a home away from home. They stayed for a long time. The more time a customer invests in a product, the more loyal they become to the brand. Howard sold experience in his stores.
Why Sell Experiences? -Every passing year, the conventional models of promoting a product were going out of practice.
Every brand aims to build a long-term business. One of the ways to accomplish that goal is to try to maximize the benefits of an investment. It implies that a brand has to develop loyal customers who would purchase the product/service again & again without the brand prompting them to buy. In this way, the brand would gain maximum value without any additional investments of money, time, and effort on expensive marketing.
Developing Loyal Customers -One of the best methods to make a customer loyal to a brand is to entice him/her to spend more time with your product or service -Similar to Starbucks. He or she will allocate more time only when the product/service offers pleasant experiences. The more time a customer spends, the more he would value the product/service. Research reveals that a person’s subconscious emotional thought was responsible for a large number of purchasing decisions. Product experience directly appeals to the emotional mind.
Experiences are also relatable and shareable. A customer may not talk about product features or benefits to his/her friends but would happily share his/her feelings about the product -the experiences while using the product/service. Stories are always appealing than listening to a list of features.
Design for Selling Experiences -Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick’s primary goal was to give comfortable seating that would let every employee sit for long hours. The more time they spend on the product, the more they value it. Indirectly, the designers were encouraging Herman Miller to sell experiences.
Shifts in Attitudes -In the early 1990s, most of the people working in new technology companies were from the younger generation of that time. They preferred to spend money on experiences rather than on material goods. The youngsters craved for adventures. So, there was already a shift in customer’s attitudes. It means that it was the best time for introducing a chair that would give a far better experience than other chairs.
EXPERIENCE IS IN ATTENTION TO DETAIL -Delivering a successful wholesome experience to a customer depends on identifying all the touchpoints where he/she would be interacting with the product/service. At each point, the experience not only has to meet the customer’s needs but go beyond his/her expectations. Don’t ask -What specific experience would we offer? Ask — What would delight the customers?.
Remember -Not all touchpoints are of equivalent value.
During observational research, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick had identified all essential touchpoints and recorded the customer’s expectations at those points. They had to solve the problems at those places/locations/spots. Remember, a customer would use the product in different ways in various contexts. Example -A customer would sit in multiple postures/positions while using the chair for diverse applications.
After the research phase, every designer will encounter a challenge. How to prioritize the problems? A designer would fail to build a great product whenever he/she tries to solve too many problems at once. Or, he would be wasting energy on a feature that won’t be offering significant value to the customer.
Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick too faced those dilemmas. They overcame it by prioritizing the critical factors if solved, would offer significant value to the customer -They categorized the problems based on the magnitude of the pain, frequency, and the number of people affected. Rather than opinions, Bill and Don used only facts from their research to prioritize the problem.
This kind of prioritization accelerated product development.
THE TOUCH EXPERIENCE
The Back Support -The first critical factor Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick chose was the shifting of body postures every few minutes by customers. As we saw earlier, the reasons were
1) The flat shape of the back & bottom upholstery created uneven heat distribution and irregular stress points in the body as the human figure is a biomorphic-curved form.
Solution -Bill and Don modified the chair’s back support to match the curvy form of the human body.
2) Bill and Don observed that lack of ventilation also resulted in retaining the body heat, forcing users to move their bodies to seek a more relaxed spot. Further research showed them that the skin is a breathing organ & it needed a sufficient pathway to inhale/exhale air. Unfortunately, the fabric-covered chairs never allowed air to pass through, becoming hot and sticky under continuous use. It’s time for a new solution and a new material.
Solution -The team came across an article written by Lovins in September 1992 Economist magazine that spoke about ways for developing efficient and green technologies. It suggested mesh seats on desk chairs as one of the solutions to cut air-conditioning bills. Lovins proved his idea through Fanger’s comfort mathematical equations. He stressed that if everybody started using chairs that were ventilated rather than upholstered, electricity costs would come down drastically. Bill and Don also had already worked on a type of mesh material for Sarah and the Aqua chair.
With the help of a material expert vendor, Bill and Don developed an advanced breathable material called Pellicle in the form of mesh. This material allowed air, water vapor to pass through and also helped in maintaining constant heat both at the front & back. It was a significant innovation.
The Bottom Support -Bill and Don, shifted their attention to uneven pressure in the butt and thighs. The pressure was partly due to the entire weight of the body acting on the small area of butt. The bottom also trapped heat and humidity, shutting down the gluteus muscles in the thighs. It affected hip movement, pelvis rotation, and pelvic stability of a user. To solve this problem, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick extended the breathable mesh material concept to the seating area of the chair. They also designed the frame in such a way that the user’s body weight could be transferred smoothly from the mesh to the solid structure, thereby avoiding the formation of pressure on the body or butt or thighs.
Bill and Don redesigned edges of the seat pan to reduce pressure on the thighs. They allocated sufficient space below the seat pan to allow consumers to fold the legs often under the seat.
The lessons from designing Sarah’s chair came handy.
Lower Back Support -Prolonged sitting in bad postures increase the pressure on the back muscles and spinal discs, leading to lower back pain. It also leads to discomfort in the shoulders, neck, and hip. The main reason for a bad posture is the lack of inadequate back support. It was essential to encourage users to maintain natural positions while sitting.
Bill Stumpf wrote, “Aeron was designed, not to correct this posture by forcing the back into uncomfortable and rigid positions, but to relieve the stress and wear that slumping inflicts on the back. In the Aeron, the multi-faceted, elegant PostureFit system supports every kind of posture.”
Aeron’s ‘Posture-Fit’ system supports the natural inward curve of the lower back. It also provides lumbar support, helping users to sit for long hours without any noticeable pain.
From Herman Miller’s website -”If an active body is at its strongest when standing -chest open and pelvis tilted slightly forward, it makes sense that you would be better off sitting like that too. That’s exactly where PostureFit SL comes in. Adjustable, individual pads maintain the sacrum and support the lumbar region of the spine to mimic that strong standing position.”
Shoulder Support -To maintain posture, Bill and Don made the chair more extended at the top of the backrest to provide maximum support for shoulders. The upper part of the chair became broader than the bottom, visually resembling a human body. It was an unusual appearance for a chair at that point.
Posture While in Movement -The seating tilt mechanism was designed to enable a user to effortlessly sustain the natural position when he/she moves forward or recline backward.
Multiple Postures -Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick designed the mechanisms in the chair to accommodate a wide range of activities and postures people adopt while working. They implemented a hinge mechanism that provided independent movements for seat pan and back support of the chair. The back and seat angles can be adjusted independently of each other, allowing a user to lock the chair into an infinite number of positions. It also reduced undue stress on a user’s lower back and supported multiple angles.
Armrests -Armrests are an essential element to maintain a user’s natural posture. It helps to avoid neck and shoulder pain. However, a user would benefit from the armrest only if it is designed to fit the arm at the appropriate height. To meet this need, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick made the armrest adjustable. None of the brands offered this at that time. They also fixed the armrest to the backside of the chair for better support. The armrests can be swiveled to support our hand’s natural orientation -a value innovation, no brand had thought at that time. The designers had also widened the arm resting area to support several arm sizes. Bill and Don also worked on improving the friction on the armrest’s top surface to avoid slipping of hands. Attention to detail at its best.
EXTREMES AND OUTLIERS
To design a solution that will work for everyone, designers have to observe extreme users or outliers. For office chair, Bill and Don thought that older people in office places could be one of the extreme users. They felt that studying those people’s difficulties could spark creative ideas.
The designers believed that if aged persons could handle the chair comfortably, then the majority of users would find it easy to use. Fortunately, Don and Bill had collected a large number of information about the problems faced by aged people while designing the Sarah chair. Using that knowledge, they analyzed all the design elements of the chair from the perspective of aging people.
- The armrest control lever was redesigned to help an aged person to use it without getting up from the chair.
- They removed the existing control levers and introduced new press buttons(Similar to buttons found on airplane seats) & rotating knobs that could be operated easily by aged people.
- Seat pan edges were designed not to apply pressure on an aged person’s thigh muscles.
- Bright Graphic icons were placed on the controls to help the user to recognize them easily.
- The tension in the controls was calibrated to enable older people to use them effortlessly.
- The controls were positioned to help in easy accessibility.
- All the controls were designed to support the single-hand operation.
When Herman Miller launched Aeron, average users found it easy to use. It helped in product promotion through word of mouth.
Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick wanted to be known as problem solvers than stylists. They believed in the traditional concept of form following function.
Communicate Lightness -Bill and Don’s priority was to make the chair lightweight. It’s crucial to visually communicate that Aeron is lighter than all other chairs in the market. That was the primary guiding rule for the product’s visual language. Don Chadwick remembered that Thonet’s chair had a lighter feeling. He and Bill began to use that as a visual benchmark for Aeron’s aesthetics.
Communicate Extreme Engineering -Aeron chair’s uniqueness was its extreme comforts. Bill and Don had achieved that comfort through high-end engineering. They wanted to show the advanced technical adaptations to the users, as it would help in building authenticity and trust. The designers also observed an emerging trend -In some products, their internal mechanisms were visible. Rather than hiding them, the products celebrated their engineering abilities. The designers also observed how some of the premium bikes didn’t cover their mechanical parts. Bill and Don also noted that in motorcycles/bikes, the controls were brought outward and actuated through cords. The cables were seen elegantly aligned along the frame.
Bill and Don adopted those ideas for their chairs -They removed all unnecessary components. They implemented a pneumatic system to control the various movements through cables.
The final design was slender like a Thonet chair. People could see the neatly arranged cords and mechanisms.
The one big reason why the customers found Aeron useful was the design team’s confidence in research-based experimentation. From the 1970s, Bill and Don had been conducting extensive research into ways that people sit.
Dowell, a member of Bill and Don’s team, was an ergonomist and a specialist in human factors. He had years of experience in understanding posture support, the pressure distribution of the seat and back support, Kinematics(movement) of the bottom part with the sitter, anthropometrics(sizing), and the heating/cooling properties of the seating material. He was responsible for validating the designer’s new ideas and prototypes through real experimental data.
Dowell’s data had played a significant role in designing the Pellicle mesh structure. He had conducted several experiments to understand the variation of skin temperature over time. His trials showed that a mesh structure kept the temperature constant. On the other hand, the temperature rose to 12'F in 20 minutes in the foam/fabric seat. The results also showed that mesh offered skin comfort and additional health benefits.
Without experimentation, testing, and validation with real test conditions, Aeron chair would not have remained as a leader for a long time.
MARKETING AERON CHAIR
After seeing the Aeron Chair prototype with skeleton structure and no foam upholstery, one of the board members commented, “I don’t know who is going to sit in that chair, but none of my people would ever sit in one.”
Herman Miller’s team was shocked to hear the criticism. They realized that the real challenge was to commercialize the chair. Fortunately, the team trusted Bill and Don’s ability to design a meaningful solution that would offer significant value to the customers. So, they believed in the product -An essential requirement to sell any product/service. However, the team also remembered how they struggled to sell Bill and Don’s earlier innovative products. The company utterly failed to market Sarah and Equa chair models. However, this time, they were determined to succeed.
PREPARING THE MARKETING & SALES TEAM
As Aeron Chair was a radical chair, Herman Miller’s marketing team recognized that the salesperson would face difficulties in persuading the customers. Unlike conventional products, he/she would have to spend more time explaining the disruptive product to potential users. They need to be specially trained.
The management team felt that the first step in the sales process -Grabbing the attention of new customers won’t be a problem as the Aeron chair looked different. They had already seen that the furniture’s weird looks had prompted many customers to approach the salespeople on their own. The salesperson would face difficulties only in the customer’s decision-analysis stage. The consumers might need help at that time.
Herman Miller’s management team thought from the customer’s perspective and wondered what would be the barriers to make a decision.
- The most significant impediment would be the lack of sufficient information to make a decision.
Aeron chair was a complex product formed by the merger of different fields of expertise. It’s a combination of ergonomics, extreme mechanical engineering, pneumatics, material science, and kinematics. A salesperson could overcome the customer’s information barrier only if he develops the extensive cross-field knowledge related to the product. However, acquiring knowledge alone won’t be enough. The customer might not be in the best position to understand the necessities of extreme engineering or pellicle material or posture advantages. So, the salesperson has to find an effective way to communicate the information to the customers. Herman Miller’s team imparted cross-functional knowledge to every salesperson and also showed them how to tell them in layman language.
Unlike traditional products, a disruptive product would force a customer to ask several questions. It was essential for a salesperson to be patient in answering those queries. Herman Miller’s management team chose salespeople with a high level of patient listening ability.
Herman Miller’s team also trained salespeople on the ways to reduce customer’s anxiety about the product. They encouraged the salesperson to offer trials of the chair at the customer’s place, showcase studies of how some customers benefited from the product, explain to them the long-term benefits in a relatable way, reveal how their business practices would improve, and help them to predict the switching costs accurately.
As it’s a disruptive product, it’s quite natural that the salesperson would face several objections and barriers in selling the product. Herman Miller’s team trained the salespeople on ways to overcome those barriers.
TARGET A SMALL NICHE OF USERS
Most of the disruptive products/services became successful by starting small. In other words, they targeted a small niche market at the beginning -a specific customer segment.
APPLE -When Apple launched Macintosh, it did not target every customer. A product for everybody is a product for nobody.
- Mcintosh initially targeted Graphic Artists/Designers in Fortune 500 companies.
- These designers used Macintoshes to give presentations to marketing professionals/executives.
- The marketing and sales professionals were mesmerized by GUI and the responsiveness of the computer. They began to use the Macintoshes for their work and gave presentations to Outside Vendors, Publishers, Clients — and the idea spread.
So, Macintosh began its business by targeting a Niche customer base(Graphic Artists/Designers) and went on to dominate the market.
EDMS -Documentum introduced the ‘Electronic Document Management System(EDMS)’ 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 regulatory department had to interact frequently with the ‘Research’ department as they were dependent on them.
- The ‘Research’ department personnel saw the benefits of the ‘EDMS’ & they began to use it.
- The research team often exchanged information with the manufacturing department of the company. Soon, the manufacturing department adopted the EDMS.
- The Document Management System then penetrated to plant construction & maintenance and from plant maintenance to external vendors/contractors and then to Regulated chemicals — then to Non-regulated chemicals & Oil refineries and then to Oil exploration & production, then to the IT department, then to Real Estate division, then to Wall Street, then to Swaps and finally, Derivative business.
Thus EDMS grew its market.
So, the rule of thumb for business success is to “Start small. Find the target market with maximum pain. Focus on a particular need, work on it, make your product distinctive, and dominate the niche market. Once you become a leader in the niche market, you could move to the larger markets”.
The Benefits -Smaller the customer segment, it is easier for the entire company to focus all its resources, energy, efforts to meet the customer needs. A better product means loyal customers.
Focusing on a small market also makes it easy to test and collect efficient customer feedback about our product or service that will help in further enhancing the product.
AERON’s INITIAL NICHE MARKET -Herman Miller initially targeted a niche market of Designers and Architects. This target segment of customers welcomed any advanced design exploration. They had better exposure and sound knowledge in their domain. Being designers themselves, they appreciated the user-centric approach and functional aesthetics. They highly valued usability experiences.
Herman Miller also enrolled its product in several prestigious design competitions. The chair received the ‘Design of the Decade’ award from IDSA and other design associations. It helped further in spreading the word among designers.
As expected, the product idea spread from designers to users from other fields.
The designers, by their profession, extensively interacted with people from other fields.
- They were closely associated with Pop Culture. The stars of the culture began to use and promote the product.
- As Pop Stars was in constant interaction with the entertainment industry, Hollywood picked up the product.
- People working on special effects in Hollywood started using the Aeron as they had to sit for long hours.
- Hollywood industry also featured the Aeron chair in movies. The product’s reputation rose.
- TV show directors often visited the special effects studio. The chair’s appearance and seating comfort mesmerized them. They began to use the chairs in the TV shows. It further increased popularity.
- Media companies like Disney got fascinated by the product and bought many for their offices.
- Adventurous people in specific domains called Opinion Leaders got intrigued by the product. They had the potential to influence the behavior of other individuals in the desired way. The opinion leaders also had better exposure and sound knowledge in their domain. They were more cosmopolitan and open to exploring & experimenting with new ideas/products. They had broader interpersonal networks that allowed them to serve as a social model. People looked at them for opinions, suggestions, and feedback. As the opinion leaders began to use Aeron, the chair’s popularity grew.
- In the late 1990s, several new digital startups popped up with young people at the helm. These new CEOs wanted to show that they were different from the previous generation. The new Aeron chair fits their requirements. They bought the furniture in large quantities.
Finally, the product reached mainstream offices.
SELL BY CREATING CURIOSITY GAP
One vendor placed a sample of Aeron chair in front of his store’s roadside window. He could hear screeching halt of cars.
Aeron’s weird look was drawing onlookers in numbers. The chair’s visual appearance aroused curiosity in people’s minds.
Activating curiosity in a customer’s mind has the power to influence consumer evaluations of the product/service, preferences, and behavior. It simplifies a salesperson’s job in selling the product.
Though Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick did not design the product to invoke curiosity in the customer’s mind, the product’s slender model, stretched fibers, exoskeleton structure, black color plastic, aesthetically clean & visible mechanical parts, human body shaped back support, and thin frame intrigued potential customers. The product appeared like an excellently engineered product. Many customers felt that the chair resembled a robot. It created a desire in the consumer’s mind to know more about the chair. The weird looks had opened an information gap. He or she was willing to give undivided attention to the product to fill that gap.
The research showed that a curious mind stimulates pleasure areas in the brain, activating a reward-seeking behavior. It opens up one’s mind to try the product/service. In the case of the Aeron chair, the salesperson found it easy to motivate a person to try using the chair.
The research also revealed that a curious mind’s pleasurable experience could carry over to the consumption experience and increase its enjoyment of the product/service. In the case of the Aeron chair, the curiosity played a significant role in enhancing the customer’s consumption experience of the chair.
The weird looks of the chair became a major selling point for the product. Design your product/service to arouse curiosity in a customer’s mind.
DESIGN FOR PERSUASION
Persuading a customer is about helping the individual to form a favorable attitude toward the product. To achieve that, a salesperson has to overcome one of the critical challenges -Customer’s hidden anxieties.
Every disruptive product has some degree of unfamiliar items. When a user seeks information about the new product, he would be mentally applying the new product to his/her anticipated future situations. In that scenario, it’s quite natural for him/her to have a fear of uncertainty -How the product would work? How would it affect his/her life? What would people think about him/her while using the product? How much it would be beneficial?.
The user’s anxiety is an emotional feeling residing in a subconscious mind. And, it’s a well-known fact that our subconscious mind plays a pivotal role in making decisions. It implies that a salesman needs to address those customer’s anxieties.
One of the ways to help customers to overcome their anxiety about purchasing the new product is by educating them.
When you are trying to sell a disruptive product, you are no more fighting any incumbent or your present competitor. You are competing against Non-Consumption.
The way to overcome Non-Consumption is to care for your customers. Think about what is best for them and help them to achieve it through your product or service. It is about helping customers to do better than before. One of the ways to help them is to teach them the best practices in the field and share relevant knowledge -It’s about Educating your customers.
Herman Miller relied on Customer Education to promote their product -They started with sharing the “Principles Knowledge” -
- They explained the reasons behind the design of every feature/element in the chair.
- They revealed why somebody needs to sustain their natural postures while sitting in rest/motion and showed how Aeron’s intricate engineering would help in that regard.
- They explained how uneven pressure distribution and limited ventilation pose health problems for the user’s skin. They showed how pellicle material would solve those problems. They also spoke about the advanced technology behind the material innovation.
- The team taught the importance of ergonomics to the customers and showed how Aeron’s designers painstakingly worked to implement the data.
- They showed how Aeron’s Kinemat tilt mechanism would help in reducing back stress, spinal compression, pains in legs, elbows, and neck.
- The team also explained the reasons behind the shape and location of the control levers. The user could see that the controls were intuitive, simple to understand, easy to operate, and located in convenient positions.
Herman Miller educated customers about healthy sitting practices.
Herman Miller’s team also employed another method to reduce customer’s anxiety about the chair.
Before deciding on purchasing any new product, we saw that customers usually want to understand its advantages & disadvantages in their context. To validate the product, most of the users prefer to confirm their thoughts with the opinions of people who were using the product in similar settings. In other words, peer opinion matters.
- Herman Miller team got testimonials from early adopters of the product -customers working in the IT industry and who were using Aeron for some time.
- The company asked potential customers to visit the offices where the chair was being in use and encouraged them to interact with users.
- The team also shared the experimental scientific data of the functioning of the Aeron chair by comparing various parameters shared by the users to conventional chairs in the market.
- Herman Miller also gave the Aeron to select people in the chosen offices and asked them to use it for some time.
PERSUASION by CUE-TO-ACTION
Everett Rogers wrote that the rate of adoption of Preventive Innovations is relatively slower than the Non-preventive Innovations. Aeron Chair was one such preventive innovation product. A customer buys the chair to avoid the possible occurrence of some unwanted event in the future. For many people, it would be difficult to experience the relevant future situation or relate to it. Naturally, they won’t see the benefit of buying the product.
Rogers offers a solution -Promote your product/service by targeting a cue. He called it Cue-to-Action.
- Herman Miller’s team found that a significant part of users had moderate lower back pain. So, they targeted this cue for selling the chair. The team wanted customers to remember Aeron whenever they encountered the pain due to prolonged sitting in the conventional chair.
- The second cue the team targeted was -Due to heat buildup under thighs/upper back, the users felt like shifting their bodies.
- The third cue the team targeted was — When they experience sweat at the back of the body.
The Cue-to-action communication also helped in persuading customers to develop a favorable attitude towards Aeron chair.
THE DECISION STAGE
DESIGN FOR TRIALABILITY
The chances of making a user purchasing the product increase if he/she was offered the innovative product for trial.
Herman Miller’s team observed that most of the customers visiting the showrooms developed an unfavorable attitude towards the product. It was shocking news for the team. They couldn’t believe it as they sincerely felt that the chair was a valuable one for the customer. The team did a little study to understand the reasons. They found out that the customers were not fully experiencing the product benefits in the showroom due to the time limitations. Without sufficient experience, the customers didn’t find the product useful. They also shared negative reviews about the product among their peers. Herman Miller’s team had to do something.
They felt that the best way to make people understand the value of the chair was to allow them to use the product for a more extended period. Therefore, the company offered the chair for a trial to some customers and encouraged them to use it for a few days.
The research shows that the rate of adoption of an innovative product increases when an individual is encouraged to try out the product on a partial basis. It helps a consumer to understand the value of the product in their work contexts.
The trial period changed the negative reviews of customers. They began to love the product. The users were amazed at how the chair felt so comfortable, even without all the traditional upholstery and foam. Many commented that the chair was an ultimate comfort machine. Earlier, the customers were worried about the thin frames, wondering whether the product could hold the load. However, after prolonged use, they were pleasantly surprised by the way the chair handled the weight.
Customers were also skeptical about the mesh structure. After using the chair for some time, they realized the value of pellicle material, particularly on those extended workdays. They could feel the flow of air through the pores in the Pellicle material.
The trials helped a user to see how the chair assisted them in accomplishing their tasks -They could move seamlessly to assume different positions/postures while performing computer-related tasks. And, the best part was that the user need not access controls frequently to shift from one position to another. Otherwise, it would have discouraged customers from using the product.
THE ENDOWMENT EFFECT
As the customers began to spend more time with the product during the trial period, they started to feel intimate with the chair. They formed pleasant memories. They began to feel the chair more valuable. Psychologists call this ‘The endowment effect’ -A cognitive bias that says once we own something (or have a feeling of ownership), we irrationally begin to value the product more than its objective value.
The Endowment effect also played a pivotal role in convincing the customers about the product.
DESIGN FOR SUSTAINABLE ENVIRONMENT
In the early 1990s, the idea of Environment Sustainability was gaining some attention. Only a very few brands had started to think on the lines of sustainability practices. On the other hand, Herman Miller told an environmental story to promote the Aeron chair. It was way ahead of time.
Dowell, a member of the Herman Miller’s operations team, had a passion for the environment. He had been requesting management to redesign activities to accommodate sustainability requirements. He continually begged every designer to integrate green thinking into the design & development of the product. Unfortunately, nobody heeded his views. However, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick were distinctive from other designers. They always felt that they had the responsibility to save the environment through their design. They respected Dowell’s views and promised him of their best possible support. The designer’s assurance motivated Dowell to join Aeron’s team.
Bill, Don, and Dowell analyzed every part of the Aeron chair and incorporated sustainable practices wherever possible. Dowell gave them three sustainability principles -High Recycled content, Easy Recyclability, and Design for easy to disassemble.
- Dowell despised the molded foam in the conventional chairs as it was the most hazardous material for the environment. He was relieved when he came to know that Bill and Don were not going to use molded foam in the new chair. The news also came as a blessing for factory workers and executives on the shop floor. They were tired of the smell from the hanging foam(Kept for curing) in the chair manufacturing plant. The foam affected workers’ health too. The new pellicle material saved tonnes of foam from ending up in landfills and also protected the people from harmful gases.
- Before Aeron’s launch, the manufacturers painted chair’s frames/supports to give them colors. It posed a significant challenge in the recycling of the materials -separating the colors was an impossible task. Bill’s team solved it by adopting a process of adding colors in the form of pigments during the molding process. Finally, the parts didn’t require the painting and could be easily recycled. And the icing of the cake -Herman Miller could offer Aeron in a range of colors.
- Herman Miller’s team used recyclable materials at every possible opportunity. They also got environmental certifications, further increasing the value of the product. The chair’s back support, frame, and mesh seat were made up of recyclable polyester plastics. The team used recycled Aluminium wherever possible. Almost 60% of parts could be recycled.
- The inefficiency of layout design and cutting systems was throwing away almost 30% of the fabric material the company had bought. The wastage was ending up in the landfill. To solve this problem, Herman Miller invested in three-dimensional knitting machines that accurately calculated the required sizes of fabric covers(ex. armrest covers) to the exact fit. It eliminated the wastage.
- One of the hardest sustainability problems faced by Herman Miller’s team was with the bonding of two parts. For decades, the team was using solvent-based glue to bond the components together. Unfortunately, it posed a sustainability challenge as it was hard to isolate the components after its intended use. To solve this, the Aeron design team introduced aesthetically appealing fasteners that also made it easy to separate the parts and put into an industrial waste recycling system.
- Dowell noted that one of the ways to protect the environment was to delay a product’s entry into the waste system. The solution was to create a long-lasting chair. The design team explored the notion during the ideation phase of design. They designed the chair in such a way that the parts could be replaced easily rather than displacing the whole chair. The company also accepted the idea of a long-lasting chair. They began to offer a twelve-year warranty for Aeron chairs.
- Bill and Don also reduced the number of parts in the chair to reduce the landfill mass. The chair became lighter in weight.
The sustainability design of the chair played a significant role in promoting the product among the primary section of opinion leaders.
From one of the Aeron’s earlier brochures, “The Aeron chair was designed with great sensitivity to its impact on the broader environment that provides the resources for its manufacture. Made largely of recycled materials, the Aeron chair is designed to last a long time, with parts that get the most wear easily replaced and recycled.”
SELLING UNIQUE IDENTITY
Many of us think that consumers make buying decisions based on logical and rational reasons. However, pre-programmed instincts/mental short-cuts formed through an evolutionary process drive those decisions. The goal of those impulses is to reproduce the copy of one’s genes and assure its survival. For accomplishing this, our instincts force us to build a unique identity and show the same to the outside world to attract mates or power(status). Our consumption/purchase is also a way of building a unique identity in front of others. Whether we like to admit or not, we unconsciously show off our consumption.
A person may say that he or she buys things for personal enjoyment or personal needs and not for showing off. However, the research shows the opposite. How we behave in public and private is different.
It is not about how a buyer perceives our product but about how others would see, think, and feel about the customer while he or she is using our product. It is about the customer’s identity while using our product or service.
In short, the products that help a customer to advertise himself/herself would sell more. It’s essential for promoting a disruptive product.
AERON AND UNIQUE IDENTITY
Customers saw Aeron’s unique look and the high price as an opportunity to easily attract others’ attention to himself/herself.
Though customers said that they bought Aeron for an employee’s or their comfort, they unconsciously used the chair for displaying their unique identity -It was a way to advertise their success to the outside world.
How Herman Miller sold an identity? The adoption of the chair by famous design houses, pop stars, TV shows, celebrities catapulted the Aeron brand to a higher social status. The product became associated with a positive growth which emerging Silicon Valley culture was trying to show off. So, the new startups began to buy the chairs in huge numbers. As Silicon Valley companies adopted the chair, the product became a symbol of the fashionable and trendy workplace. It further increased its sales. Moreover, Aeron came in three sizes & it promoted the flat organizational structure. The companies who wanted to show to the world that they were generous towards employees, bought these chairs.
After getting his first venture check, Seth Godin went and bought more than a dozen Aeron chairs that got him into the front page of the Wall Street journal.
Aeron’s success was not just about being the best functional chair in the market but about creating an identity for a customer which he or she would like to advertise.
Until the early 1990s, the traditional chair manufacturers designed and launched single sized chairs to meet everyone’s needs. Those chairs were created to fit the anatomical dimensions of the 50th percentile male -the size of a hypothetical average person. Unfortunately, people come in different shapes and sizes. The majority of the users found it hard to use the single-sized chairs. They had to adjust too many complicated controls to fit the product to their needs. It took more effort and time. The manufacturers were forcing people to apply themselves within that single sized chair. However, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick firmly believed that every user deserves a comfortable chair. They studied the dimensional requirements for extreme users. The design team discovered that ‘one size’ would not give the ergonomic support required by the individual user. Their research also revealed that if Herman Miller could launch Aeron in three sizes, it would provide comfort to a broader range of people. The company introduced three sizes of chairs, covering 2.5 percentile females to 97.5 percentile males.
Herman Miller’s introduction of Aeron in multiple sizes had simplified the lives of many people. It was one of the significant reasons why Aeron chair was widely adopted.
NON DISCRIMINATORY DESIGN
HORIZONTAL ORGANISATIONAL STRUCTURE
Until the early 1990s, manufacturers sold chairs based on office class structure -Executive, Manager, and Secretary models. Employees in the lower rungs never got good functional chairs. Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick despised this unequal treatment. The emerging dot com culture was also against this hierarchy based organizational structure.
When Herman Miller launched Aeron in three sizes( small hips, medium hips, and large hip sizes) based on the body dimensions, the Silicon Valley people happily welcomed and called it revolutionary. The new chair promoted the idea that a chair should fit an individual based on the size and not on the rank. It broke the backbone of the office hierarchy and moved the discussion to personal health. The chair helped the companies to promote horizontal organizational structure. The startups who wanted to advertise their generosity towards employees bought several Aeron chairs. Of course, many emerging companies wanted to publicize their liberal values.
Aeron chair came at the right time to the market -at the time of the emerging dot-com boom. A cultural revolution was also on the cards. The launching of the chair in three sizes based on body shapes rather than based on class structure played a notable role in the wide adoption of the product.
Aeron chair was a perfect example for the quote -If you care for your customers, they will care for your product. Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick didn’t start to design a great product but to give a comfortable and healthy life to the customers. The final product turned out to be a great one. It became a disruptive innovation. Yet, Herman Miller found it challenging to persuade people to buy the chair. However, the company successfully overcame all those difficulties. It shows us how to market and sell a disruptive product.
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, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christenson, Designing for Growth — Tim Ogilvie, Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. Leaders and Followers: Lessons from 45 years at Herman Miller, Inc by DIck Ruch, Merchants Of Virtue: Herman Miller and the Making of a Sustainable Company By Bill Birchard.