One anecdote highlighted in the interview was particularly striking. A group of chemists at Procter & Gamble were given the task of designing a new soap for mopping floors. It turns out that this isn’t a simple problem to solve because stronger soaps, while better solvents for cleaning, can irritate the skin and strip the sheen from floors.
After years of unsuccessful attempts the problem was finally outsourced to industrial design firm, Continuum. The first thing that Continuum did was take 9 months to observe people mopping the floors in their own homes. By watching the process they learned that the act of mopping is actually a very messy ordeal. Mops are designed to capture dirt and wringing them out is tough and often dirt is sloshed back onto the floor in the process.
During the course of their discovery they found that subjects would often clean before the team arrived in their homes. So the designers would unwittingly spill coffee on the floor. In this experiment, the subjects didn’t go for the mop at all. They usually reached under the counter for a paper towel which they would wet under the faucet, use to wipe the floor by hand and toss into the trashcan.
Thus, the Swiffer was invented – a disposable paper towel attached to a mop handle.
So, what can we take away?
Beware of solving the wrong problem – As evidenced in this anecdote, the smartest people in the world often are challenged not to start with the end in mind. According to the story, at one point Procter & Gamble had more PhD’s on staff than any other company in America. They tried to solve the problem as they saw it, but not as their users experienced it.
[update: according to the P&G Doctoral Recruiting page on facebook, they have "more PhDs working in our core areas than Yale, MIT and UC Berkeley combined do in the same areas." (emphasis mine)]
Observe people where they work - There is no substitute for watching users in their element when it comes to understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. We should also be careful to understand the side-effects of our discovery and design experiments that ensure we’re getting what came for. The Continuum team had to do this when they began to realize that their subjects were cleaning the floors prior to the observation.
You’re not likely to outthink the scientists – Continuum took a different approach because they knew they couldn’t out-chemistry the chemists. Innovation is as much about the pedestrian work of learning and watching so that easier solutions can be developed to the address the really hard problems we face.
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