By Annie Pettit
How lazy do you have to be to buy oranges that are already peeled? Or to buy a fridge that will come on command? How incapable are you of using a blanket or sweater that you need to buy a blanket with sleeves?
On the other hand, do you use an OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler with the thick, wide rubber handle? Do you use the voice capabilities available on your smartphone, in your car, and with your Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo, or Google Home?
I love ALL of these innovations, even the ‘stupid’ ones. Why? Because they were all designed to do one thing – give disabled people equal access to products and services and, in many cases, allow them to continue living productive, independent lives. People who have carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis can experience so much pain that they are unable to peel oranges by hand, use regular vegetable peelers, or type on a keyboard. People who have movement disabilities might not be able to walk to the fridge hence their delight in a fridge on wheels or a robot vacuum cleaner. People who use wheelchairs need clothing that can accommodate limited movement.
All of these innovative products were originally successful with niche, highly targeted audiences, and were subsequently marketed to a broader audience in hopes of expanding on the success and increasing sales further. So why were some of these expansions humiliating failures while others were wildly successful? It all comes down to marketing and communications.
Pre-peeled oranges don’t have an obvious need within the general population. If our fingers get sticky, we just walk over to the kitchen and wash our hands. No big deal. The product is illogical to most people. However, if Whole Foods had included the oranges in a special section for accessibility products, e.g., pre-peeled fruit, pre-chopped vegetables, pre-made meals, and provided an information card, their customers would have loved learning that these products help disabled people maintain their independence. Indeed, Whole Foods might have benefited from a completely different viral tweet, one that complemented them for providing pre-peeled oranges. A little bit of research could have prevented that fiasco.
On the other hand, some products created for disabled people do have a need within the general population. Everyone loves a more comfortable vegetable peeler, especially when five pounds of potatoes have to be peeled in preparation for dinner with the extended family. And everyone appreciates voice activated products that can read a book to them while they drive or read the next step for changing the oil in their new car.
Products designed for disabled people often have far more applications than we realize. However, you can’t rely on consumers to recognize those applications. You can’t even rely on the product innovators to identify alternate applications. Whether you choose a survey or several focus groups that put prototype products in the hands of consumers, a little bit of research can help you accomplish two things.
First, that research can identify a wide range of potential applications that might suit people in the general population as well as identify applications in other niche markets. And second, that research can help you build a communications plan to ensure consumers understand and properly appreciate any unusual applications of the product and prevent the next pre-peeled orange blow-up. A little research can go a long way to ensure product success.
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