Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ethnography, Failure, and Diaper Design

Fortune has a great article on how Kimberly-Clark designed a new line of premium diapers, in part to cope with declining future demand due to demographic trends (lower birth rates). The article highlights two important practices that firms are employing these days. First, it points out the importance of ethnographic marketing research, i.e. direct observation of consumers in natural settings using a company's products. Firms are employing these observational methods, rather than relying solely on focus groups and surveys, because they have learned that people often say one thing and do another. Moreover, consumers often aren't even aware of key aspects of how they use particular products. Observation yields great insights about the specifics of consumer behavior. Here is an excerpt from the article on this point:

"In many cases they went into homes to do interviews; in others, they placed motion-activated cameras in the home to observe diaper-change routines and then watched the hours of footage at K-C headquarters... Nelson plays some footage of a newborn getting its diaper changed, taken from one of the videocameras. You see the baby's legs continually springing up and the mom trying to straighten them as she puts on the diaper; clearly it's a struggle. Footage like that started pushing the team in the direction of thinking that a better diaper would be shaped to get around those legs and follow the curves of a baby's body."

The second key point in this article is that Kimberly-Clark is intentionally creating failures in their research labs to learn more about diaper technology. Only through intentionally causing many types of diaper leaks can they discover how to create a diaper that fits comfortably, yet does not leak. Here is the excerpt on that point:

"Fit diapers in varying states of sagginess, are noisily playing with trucks and watching SpongeBob SquarePants. They're an adorable collection of diaper blowouts about to happen, and when they finally do, K-C's researchers record each failure in obsessive detail: how much the diaper weighed at the end, where the leak seeped out, how the diaper fit around the legs.
The goal of this forced-failure test, as Kimberly-Clark calls it, is to check that the diapers being churned out at the company's factories match the rigorous standards for Huggies Supreme Natural Fit..."

As the father of three, with one still in diapers, I found the article quite interesting. It's rather amazing how much time and money is spent trying to perfect diaper "technology" at Kimberly-Clark.