“Thoughtless Acts”


"Some industrial designers sketch, some study new material technology, some
collect inspiration from garbage. Fulton Suri watches and looks, and then
presses her observations into the design of products and environments. The
mother at the salad bar might become the foundation for the design of a
supermarket, shopping cart, or airport kiosk — anyplace we could all use an
extra hand.

As the leader of the "human factors" group at IDEO, the
international design consultancy, she and her colleagues will watch kids
brushing their teeth, parents pushing strollers, or patients checking in at the
emergency room, trying to find opportunities for design to improve the
experience. Yet often that means looking for something less obvious: the ways in
which the experience can improve the design.

Their observations have
brought rubber grips to Oral-B’s toothbrushes, raised the height of Even-Flo’s
strollers, and streamlined DePaul Health Center’s check-in processes. For Fulton
Suri it’s as if the world is one big beta test, in which every feature is
begging for improvement.

then help translate those observations into products, often for some of the
world’s largest companies. They’re professionally consumed with the little
tricks and rationalizations that smooth our interactions with the world. Last
year, for example, they traveled the globe to watch people clean their
bathrooms, finally striking pay dirt in Puerto Rico, where they saw a retired
hotel housekeeper use a flat broom to reach high up into her shower’s murkier

That woman’s "thoughtless act" was then incorporated into the
Mr. Clean Magic Reach — a bathroom cleaning system with a telescoping pole.
Proctor & Gamble (PG), owner of the Mr. Clean brand, says it expects to sell
$150 million of them this year.

And when IDEO experts were asked to
redesign kitchen tools for Zyliss, a Swiss company, they observed one mother
prop her child up on the counter to help. Fulton Suri saw that as an opportunity
for a "transitional tool" — something between a wooden spoon and a knife —
resulting in the design of a new pizza-cutter with the handle positioned
directly above the blade, the better to keep kids’ hands out of the pie but
involved in the cooking.

The design solution arose out of a social
situation — which could only have come from Fulton Suri’s way of designing by

Insights from "Thoughtless Acts"
Veteran designer Jane Fulton Suri discerns
unmet consumer needs via keen observations of ordinary people doing ordinary
By Andrew Blum, contributing editor for Businessweek.