Kärcher’s consistent product design
BY CHRISTIAN PECHER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)
Yellow and black gadgets for the house and garden, there is a good reason why many will recognise that we are talking about Kärcher here. Michael Meyer, Head of Industrial Design Home & Garden Products at Kärcher, tells us in an interview how the company manages to anchor its consumer product worldwide in different markets, how product innovation comes about and which channels it has to pass to reach product maturity.
Mr Meyer, what is so special about the world of products by Kärcher?
First of all, 3,000 different products provide us with a comprehensive mix of innovative problem solutions. This includes very different gadgets for private use in the house and garden and also for professional use in industry and trade. This product variety has one thing in common: All solutions put the customer and their needs at the centre.
Every product has to meet a number of different requirements and expectations. What is most important to you and why?
For me as a designer, the customer is the focal point. Not only should they be able to use our products, but we also want them to be excited about them. For that reason, we not only focus on smooth functionality of the product in our design, but also pay attention to the emotional aesthetics and haptics.
A number of steps have to be taken from conception to market introduction. How does the process work and what are the hidden big challenges?
Our products run through a clearly defined development process. It starts by closely observing and questioning our customers. Here we discover problems which we are going to solve in our future products. Next, we develop ideas in a creative workshop, which results in first conceptual sketches. The most promising concepts will be developed to market maturity by an interdisciplinary team. Effort and volume are determined by the degree of innovation and the complexity of the individual concept. The biggest challenge for a designer is to adjust in process as well as in culture to the different international project and development partners, whilst keeping to a unique functionality, aesthetics and haptics based on the Corporate Industrial Design Guideline defined for the brand. Another challenge is to take into account the varying customer needs of different regions. While a Japanese customer expects small, silent products which can be neatly tidied away, Americans appreciate simple, strong, robust solutions. We also pay attention to ergonomic needs. The handles on Asian gadgets are smaller than those on products for North America.
Engineers and designers work closely together in your company. How does this cooperation work and which opportunities does it provide?
The cooperation between developer and designer is crowned with success when both understand each other’s tasks. Moreover, there is overlapping expertise in several areas, which are closely linked and sometimes work in parallel on the same project. Next to their specialised knowledge, a designer has to know a good deal about construction. They also have to be familiar with manufacturing technologies. In our case this is plastic injection moulding. Above all, personal exchange is crucial for successful product development. This way, products are made which are not only attractive, but which can also be produced at the targeted price. At Kärcher, the cooperation between surface designers and construction engineers is particularly close. That is how the design of the final outer surfaces of each Home & Garden product emerges in the construction software CATIA. This data is directly sent to the constructor. Wall thickness, tool separation and definition for the surface finish are also defined by the design surface modeller using the CATIA file. This close cooperation, even at software level, is not common in the field of design, but has proven to be very successful in our case and we are improving it continuously. It makes us very effective and efficient in the transition phase of the product development. Despite all the high-tech you must not forget that talking brings you together. Good ideas take time.
How important is the look of the product for you?
The aesthetics are of great importance for the success of a product. You cannot win in today’s highly competitive final product market segment by function alone. The design delivers the DNA to the product, makes it clearly identifiable as Kärcher und makes it stand out in the competition. We follow our Corporate Industrial Design Guideline as we do not want to leave this to chance. Therefore, every single one of our products wordlwide is recognisable as a Kärcher. The aesthetics of our product promotes the value of our brand. The more unified, the clearer the picture of the brand becomes to our customers.
You combine functionality, user friendliness and attractive design. How have the demands of your customers changed in the past years with regard to those three qualities?
Not at all. Our customers want a smoothly functioning product which does its job. And as they have bought Kärcher, they expect the product to carry out this job better than any other. This is how Kärcher has gained its outstanding reputation in the cleaning segment. Furthermore, our customers expect user friendliness. Ideally they do not have to give much thought before applying the gadget. We designers invest a lot of time in the concept and design of the usability of our products. We therefore avoid dangerous situations or injuries and create added comfort by intuitive user guidance. The rule is: The easier it seems, the more work went into finding the solution. The customer expects attractive aesthetics, even though they often cannot articulate this in market research. Perception psychology tells us that subconsciously we decide in 0.3 seconds whether we like something. This is solely based on our past experience. We know instantly if we like a shape, without thinking about it. This is the point where industrial design begins. The design of our products promises a certain performance and functionality. Ideally these expectations are fulfilled when the product is used. Aesthetics contributes to this, just as other things such as functionality, ergonomics, user guidance, haptics, acoustics and others. Raymond Loewy stated this as early as the 1950s: “Ugliness does not sell”.
How has Kärcher managed to keep its inventiveness up for 80 years?
Through curiosity. We do not rest on our laurels, but approach our customers in new ways and find new approaches for hitherto unsolved cleaning problems. This has lead to creative world innovations such as the window vacuum or the hard floor cleaner FC 5.
You encourage creatives to submit new innovative ideas. How did you get the idea and what advantages does this provide for Kärcher?
Many eyes can see more than a few. We are always open to new ideas, wherever they come from. In addition, Kärcher runs an internal innovation and idea management scheme and every employee is encouraged to contribute. We have no problem finding new ideas. The important thing is to filter the right ideas in terms of future market success.
Since the founding year 1935, Kärcher has introduced numerous products to the market. Please, tell us about one product with a very special genesis.
During my 17 years at Kärcher I have witnessed and influenced the emergence of many exciting products. I particularly remember a pressure cleaner, which we developed specially for the Japanese market. To meet the concrete demands of our Japanese customers I made contact with a design company in Kyoto. This was my first visit to Japan. Ever since I have been a big fan of this country. The success of the first product lead to many more projects, all of which became very popular with our Japanese customers. It pays off to be close to the customer when you develop something.
What are your plans for the near future?
Kärcher thinks long term. Our ten-year strategy is solely focused on the customers and their needs. We will continue to do everything to find solutions to unsolved cleaning problems. To achieve this we will keep developing our existing product lines, but we will also introduce new, revolutionary cleaning solutions to the market. And of course we will be leading the pack as far as the digital future is concerned.
Michael Meyer has been working for Kärcher for 17 years. In his role as Head of Industrial Design Home & Garden Products he manages 20 industrial designers, CAD design modellers, graphic artists and application engineers at locations such as Winnenden, Denver and Changshu. After completing his university degree, he spent a year at the London agency NATIVE design and in 2000 he took the opportunity to establish the in-house design for consumer products at Kärcher.
A brief portrait of Viamedici
For more than 20 years, Viamedici Software GmbH has been a leading provider of standard software solutions for product management, product marketing and product distribution. Viamedici solutions assist companies in marketing their products and services more efficiently and have been applied by more than 200 customers worldwide, amongst them many famous brands such as Kärcher, Jungheinrich, Bosch or Knauf. Next to its headquarters in Ettlingen/Karlsruhe and a subsidiary in Kassel, Viamedici is represented in Bern, San Francisco, Tokyo and Hong Kong, and also covers an international network of consulting and implementing partners. At the centre of Viamedici’s portfolio is the product information management Suite Viamedici EPIM, which also includes areas such as product master data management, media asset management, total quality management and data governance as well as cross-media publishing. This is supplemented by a high-performance e-commerce platform and solutions for electronic data exchange and mobile applications. Robustness, flexibility, first class performance, perfect ergonomics and usability and a modern, attractive surface design are the guidelines for Viamedici’s product development. Not only does the company provide highly efficient processes, it also cares about making the search for solutions with Viamedici fun.
ACHIEVING GOALS TOGETHER
Kärcher applies Viamedici EPIM to centrally manage and publish product information across media and channels in all languages. The company has used the system since 2013 for global scaling via Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Picture credit © Alfred Kärcher GmbH & Co. KG