The Impact of Rethinking User Experience – From Toothbrushes to Teslas

This article was originally posted at as an assignment for course MS&E 238 at Stanford University 2017.

How will we experience the next generation of “old” products? That is, products that already exist and seem “normal” to us, in the way they are designed and in the way they solve our problem.

User experience is a very wide term. It can be used when talking about what colors should be used on a website or where a buy button should be placed in a software product, but it can also be used to describe how a user interacts with anything. What happens in the eyes of the user? What problem are you really solving? And are you solving it in a way that makes sense?

In his talk, Straubel told the story about how Tesla redesigned an “old” product to be something new. They had the possibility to rethink how the user experience could be improved as they set out to create a “new” kind of electric car.

Most often, industries end up in something you might call a rut. Companies keep producing similar products because it is what have always been and “it worked”. But then there are innovators who change the space of a product or an industry.

Oral B did just that with the help of IDEO in a project regarding a redesign of a kid’s toothbrush in 1996. Tom Kelley, founder of IDEO, tells the story about how Oral B came to them for the redesign, in a talk at Stanford in 2008. He explains that to create the most value, IDEO wanted to do what they always did, “go out and make observations because you can (almost) always spot opportunities”, he says.

They realized that the kid’s’ toothbrush was just a smaller version of the adult’s one, but it wasn’t used the same by kids as they were by adults. Noticing this, the IDEO team designed a toothbrush with a bigger handle, and making it squishy so it fitted better in the hands of a kid. Today, kids’ toothbrushes look like the one designed by IDEO back in 1996. And since Oral B were first on the market, they ended up having the best-selling kid’s toothbrush in the world – for 18 months.

We make implicit assumptions about how users want to solve problems, and we have a lot to blame legacy for that. It’s always easier to just do the same as before, instead of rethinking. This is one of the reasons why startups threaten the existing market. They are forced to rethink how a solution should solve a problem, since the adoption of their product is what decides if the startup fails or succeeds.

Instead of asking users what they want, we need to observe (or ask) them to see what problems they are experiencing. It can be as detailed as your experience when brushing your teeth, or as big-scale as your experience in getting from one place to another. Tesla challenges the way we look at eco-friendly transportation with their electric vehicles and have received extreme recognition for this.

Their first version, the Tesla Roadster, was a success for the company despite roadblocks in production for years, according to an article in Electrek.

“But, [The Roadster] was successful for Tesla because it achieved its main objectives. The Roadster changed people’s perception of what electric cars can be and it helped launch or accelerate several more electric vehicle programs.”

Because who said electric vehicles had to be silly, slow and not very cool? Tesla changed the way we look at electric vehicles today. And we can do the same in more industries and with more products. Who says a laptop has to be attached to its keyboard? Who says a key has to be physical? And who says we need to press buttons when we want something to happen?

Rethinking user experiences enables us to innovate and create something new with what already is. And it is as simple as observing the problems and solving them with a different mindset. What would you solve?



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