What Your Business Can Learn from a Vacuum

September 12, 2013

I have to admit, I kind of enjoy vacuuming. I take great satisfaction in removing the foulness of the world that is dragged in by unwitting carriers and deposited on my floors. Recently, during one of my less pleasant vacuuming sessions, I got to thinking about how frustrating it is that there are still major design flaws in most vacuums. If someone were to watch me vacuum, they would see things that we consider a normal part of the routine, but are really absurd given the amount of innovation in the world. For example, replacing the head on the vacuum or futzing with switches every time I switch from hardwoods to carpet. Working on my yellow lab’s favorite spot on the carpet, going back and forth, using different angles of approach, over and over, until it finally passes my cleanliness standard. Trying to vacuum under cabinets and not having the confidence that you got everything. Time for another head change. Or my favorite, lugging the unit around with me as I try to navigate the dreaded vacuuming of the stairs.

The modern day vacuum can trace its roots back to 1901 when British engineer, Hubert Cecil Booth, patented the first motorized vacuum cleaner. Here we are 112 years later and there are still some real usability issues to be resolved with this very targeted technology. How can this be? Aren’t they watching people like me struggle? Aren’t they listening to their consumers? The problems seem so obvious.

This is where Dyson comes in. If you haven’t heard of Dyson yet, you will. They are as passionate about vacuum cleaners as anyone can be. When you watch their design video, you can’t help but be inspired. Yes…inspired by a vacuum. It’s obvious that they’ve really listened, watched, and learned from their customers. That type of deep empathy leads to real problem solving and innovation. The result? All of the problems I encounter with my vacuum have been resolved with their latest design. They have a floating head that automatically and gracefully adjusts between carpet and hardwood floors. The suction power is twice that of any other vacuum on the market. No more yellow lab hairs. The four wheels that have been the hallmark of vacuum design replaced with a ball (blasphemy!) that allows you to turn on a dime. And my favorite, the handle pops out to a wand vacuum that has a hose that can reach to the top of the stairs.

So, how did other vacuum manufacturers, like Hoover and Oreck that have been around for decades, miss these innovations? Just look at Dyson’s tag line, “Relentless Innovation,” and you have your answer. The leaders like Hoover and Oreck got complacent. They weren’t listening and watching closely enough. They tweaked and made incremental changes. They didn’t innovate.

This very mistake — the mistake of not really listening to or empathizing with the customer — is repeated every day across many businesses. Let’s look at an example that relates to technology millions of people use every day, at work and home — email. Email has been around for 20 years (that’s 112 in vacuum years) and yet if you watch people use it, the problems are so obvious.

If software developers and IT professionals were to watch, listen, and understand the people that are using email to communicate with the groups in their lives, they would see real problems that are going unsolved. They would see people wasting time every day sifting through mounds of unwanted emails, just to get to the ones that matter. They would see people struggling to keep up with a conversation by reading through unnecessary headers and footers before getting to the actual message. They would see people sending out an email looking for feedback or answers and hearing only crickets in response. Did it actually send? Did it wind up in someone’s spam filter? They would witness user’s frustration with “inbox full” messages or emails that bounce back because the attachment was too large. They would also see people working in a text-based interface that looks about as engaging as warning labels on medications. The bottom line, they would see people feeling disconnected from others, frustrated, and wasting time.

Fortunately, like Dyson, innovation has arrived. If you haven’t heard about “social collaboration,” you soon will. “Social collaboration” is helping people communicate and get things done with other people in a way that email can’t. Like Dyson, social collaboration is providing the innovation and experience people have been waiting for.

You immediately feel connected, more engaged with the people in your conversations. You can see their picture and an indicator that they are “online,” so it feels like they are there with you. Conversations happen in real-time, and like with texting, you can see when people are typing a response. It’s a little thing, but as we’ve seen with texting, it really matters. Conversations happen around topics, tasks, and meetings without the continuous interruptions of spam emails and reading through useless headers and footers. The group collaborating has a central place where the conversation is happening, which avoids the headache of people saving emails to folders. You’ll never get another “inbox full” or “attachment too large” message. And people respond! Problems you share are crowdsourced by the team. No more crickets! And maybe the most important thing, just like vacuuming with a Dyson, it just feels better, even delightful. This is an infectious feeling that will spread to your groups in your personal life, your company, customers, partners…everyone. And just like how a Dyson will cut vacuuming time in half, social collaboration will have a major impact on your group or companies success.

So lookout email, this is your wake up call. And thank you Dyson, for the lesson we too easily forget. Now please figure out how to make the vacuum cordless.

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