I had a conversation with Sanyin Siang, the executive director of COLE, the center for leadership and ethics at Duke University yesterday and during our conversation, we talked at length about storytelling in business. I shared one of my favorite business stories with her and thought that you might like to hear about it too.
OXO is a company that produces utensils, tools and housewares. The genesis of the company is rooted in one man’s love for his wife.
Sam Farber was the retired CEO of a cookware company and he and his wife, Betsey, were making apple pie one day when he noticed how she struggled with the apple peeler that she was using. Betsey had arthritis, and the peeler that she was using was difficult and painful for her to use. Sam’s further investigations showed that most utensils had poor functional design and sensing an opportunity, he set out to create better products for everyone.
His research into the utensil market revealed that most companies were more interested in improving product packaging and retail displays than they were in making the products more functional. He founded OXO International with Betsey and his brother John in 1989, hired a design consulting company, Smart Design, to design better utensils and revolutionized the industry by starting the ‘inclusive design’ revolution. ‘Inclusive design’ sought to create products that had broad appeal and superior usability, and they conducted extensive research among people who used utensils, including healthy consumers, professional chefs, people with arthritis and people whose grips were weakened because of age. In this discovery phase, they researched competitors’ products too and realized that most products in the marketplace also suffered from the use of poor quality materials, which often exacerbated the usability woes that consumers had to deal with.
OXO’s Good Grips product line was unveiled at the Gourmet Products Show in San Francisco in 1991, and they instantly became a hit. Their attention to detail and keeping their consumers’ usage habits in mind were exactly the prescription required to create a successful utensils company. They understood that to be successful, they had to understand the narratives of how their customers interacted with and used these products. This focus on usability is described in an excerpt from this article from the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University.
Fundamental wrist and hand actions of kitchen utensil operation were identified: twist/turn, push/pull and squeeze. The concept designs had to make each of these actions as easy as possible. The resultant products share the same focus on usability and functionality. The designers developed a handle design that does not rotate in the hand, is large enough to not strain the hand and also distributes the pressure across the hand when in use. The soft rubber fins designed for enhanced finger-grip also serve the dual purpose of making it clear to consumers that these products have been designed for ease of use. Even the design of the large, tapered hole for hanging the utensils was intended to make it easier for someone with poor vision or reduced co-ordination to use.
The story of OXO is one that started humbly with the baking of an apple pie, but has grown to legendary status because of an unflinching dedication to understanding and designing to customer narratives.