The Soft Science of Hard Problems

consumer products

The Soft Science of Hard Problems

How design uncovers over-learned behaviors

August 17, 2014
by Jason Robertson

You leave work and drive home. Soon you arrive, barely aware of anything in between. It happens to everyone—our brain shifts into automatic, and it’s a good thing (mostly). There are hundreds of little things we do every day that we don’t think much about: washing our hair, squeezing a bottle of ketchup, drinking from a bottle—the list goes on and on. We do certain things so often or learned them so long ago that we don’t have to think about doing them(thankfully). They’re called over-learned behaviors, and they’re some of the hardest problems for a designer because we need to design new products and experiences that solve needs people may not be able to articulate. Fortunately, there are some really geeky designer-scientists out there (confession: I’m one of them) that look a little differently at these hard problems in an effort to design a better experience for the people who experience them: we experiment.

At Continuum, where we often refer to our human-centered design capability and our strength understanding people, we have spent a lot of time thinking about ways to deal with these hard problems. To tackle them, we’ve applied “soft science”—a connection between rigorous research and more subjective interviews with people. The goal is to capture both the physical reality and the emotional experience that accompanies it. It’s a lot like the scientific method you might have learned in high school, where you start with a hypothesis and then perform experiments only in the pre-hypothesis stage, where we use careful observation, scientific measurements, and interviews to develop ideas on what would make an experience better.

We’ve found that applying this soft science is particularly useful for 3 things. The first is making sure we focus on the right problem. When we partnered with a car company to create a better driving experience, we weren’t sure where to focus. We knew we needed to look a little closer at how people feel while they’re driving. Naturally, we got into cars with people and interviewed them, but we also had each driver wear a heart-rate sensor. We expected the most anxiety (highest heart rate) to be on the highway at high speeds, but what we found surprised everyone. People are most anxious when they’re parking—when they have to navigate in close quarters around other cars. This led us to focus our efforts where we could make the most impact: parking.

As part of the early research when we were designing the Swiffer with P&G, we created scientifically accurate dirty floors. After doing some research, we found that the largest component of “dirt”—and the hardest to clean—was actually dry flakes of skin. So we went to podiatrists to get skin, combined it with oil and other debris, sprayed it over a floor, and then measured the “dirtiness” using a reflectometer. We compared the effectiveness of different cleaning chemicals, and found that most mops and cleaners just push dirt around rather than pick it up. With additional chemicals off the table, we started to look at other ways to pick up dirt: static cling. Voilà, the Swiffer! The product was a hit with consumers, boosting P&G’s profits by 5 percent in its first year and growing to become a half-billion dollar brand by 2011.

The second useful application of the soft science approach is that it’s invaluable to understand the details of over-learned behaviors. Take showering, for example—the shower is the place where you think about anything but showering (ever have a great idea in the shower?). So when Moen asked us to design a new shower experience, we knew we couldn’t just ask people what made their showering experience great. First, we had to build a vocabulary around showering. We built a shower-lab with a clear plastic wall and we filled it with different ways to cover people with water. We used an array of different shower heads and even a bucket that would fill with water and then dump it all out at once. Then we recruited volunteers (turned out to be nudists and art students) to use the shower-lab and talk to us about what was good and bad about each different shower experience. We were also able to observe behaviors that our subjects didn’t articulate—like that they spent half their time in the shower actually avoiding the water.

We then measured everything we could about the array of shower heads from the size of each droplet to force of the water. When we combined all of the measurements of individual shower heads with the subjective information we collected from the people using them, a picture of an ideal showering experience started to take shape.

Understanding over-learned behaviors is one thing, and designing for them is another. For one beverage packaging manufacturer, for example, we used science to carefully learn about how people drink. Putting cameras in the bottom of water bottles allowed us to see how mouths interact with the lip of a container. It turns out there are three basic ways that people drink, differing in the position of the mouth on the spout: pour, suck, and pull. And it turns out that your mouth interacts with the container differently in each of these three modes. We next devised an experiment to understand how fast people drink, and we learned that there’s a naturally ideal drinking flow-rate that is consistent no matter which way a person drinks.

Of course, the data don’t tell the whole story. The key to all of these experiments is that we not only gathered the hard data, but we also asked the subjective, qualitative questions too, such as: “What did you think of that one?” and “Why is that better?” The real magic happens when the hard numbers and subjective comments start to align. Then you can start to define the physical constraints to achieve an ideal experience. In the case of the beverage packaging example, when we tested our concept against other packages, people actually said the same juice tasted better coming out of the new package.

Humans are amazingly complex; even the smallest things we do—from drinking to washing our hair—require a symphony of synapses firing and muscles flexing of which we’re likely completely unaware. (Still don’t believe me? Try brushing your teeth with your other hand.) As you go through your day, look closely at all the mundane products you use. Chances are, the ones you’ve never given a second thought were carefully investigated and designed by some designer-scientists out there.

filed in: consumer products, product experience