It’s easy to imagine digital extensions to ordinary offline tasks like shopping for bargains. Sales coupons and rewards points are familiar concepts, so their digital equivalents add convenience and are easy for consumers to understand. Consumers can also grasp how technology can create enhanced experiences, such as crowd-sourced reviews that help consumers choose a nearby restaurant, or exercise equipment that notifies its users periodic progress reports.

But for some more daily life experiences… it’s not so obvious.

While technology actually can make life better, it’s not always clear to the consumer how a digital connection could provide a benefit. For product designers, that presents a challenge: How do you design personal experiences for items that are seemingly impersonal? Or put another way, how do you transform a razor or a toothbrush from an inanimate object into an experience that connects a consumer to a brand in new and delightful ways?

Personal experiences for impersonal items

One answer, says PJ Mason, P&G’s Associate Director, Design, Oral Care, is to think in terms of guiding and coaching consumers – providing the consumer with feedback that itself becomes a useful service.

People understand feedback in other realms, such as indicators when their car’s tire tread is low or that the vehicle needs an oil change. Similarly, says Mason, when you use an Oral-B toothbrush, you get coaching while you’re brushing. That feedback loop encourages consumers to build a healthy habit over time. So, you get feedback while coaching and track improvement over time, which helps build healthy habits.

But engagement is more than status updates. For example, says P&G’s Patrick Schwing, Oral-B Associate Brand Director, the average American replaces the new head on their brush one or two times a year, rather than the quarterly replacement that’s recommended. “This is truly consumer inspired and technology enabled,” says Schwing. “Consumers are frustrated by not knowing when the head is worn or which replacement refill is compatible with their brush. Most of the time, they just forget when the head was changed last.”

By understanding the frequency, duration and pressure of the individual brushing, Oral-B can offer consumption-based replenishment. For consumers who buy multiple refills, it may be a reminder to replace the existing head. Or, we can make purchasing refills more convenient, with a message that asks, “Would you like a new genuine Oral-B replacement head sent to your door?”

Most customers are appreciative, Schwing says. “They can get the best performance from the brush and take the hassle out of the replenishment process.”

Creating with the Consumer

You don’t have to wait until the product is ready to find out what matters to consumers. In fact, early engagement can help fine-tune a product vision. That’s what the GilletteLabs team discovered last year, when it asked consumers for  input on the GilletteLabs Heated Razor. The team had already articulated its objective: to transform the chore of shaving into an enjoyable experience. “The brief started with a sensorial experience that makes people look forward to shaving,” says Ahmed Rizk, Global Senior Communications Manager, Gillette. They knew from previous consumer research that the best shaves are a hot towel barber shave. A heated razor could bring home the same experience.

Like the Oral-B designers described in How Iterative Design Drove CES Success, the GilletteLabs team stretched itself creatively, and took the risk of asking consumers to help them fine-tune the product function. Certainly, the May 2019 launch demonstrated the product success, including Engadget’s Best of CES 2019 Award and an overwhelming number of positive reviews from such publications as AskMen, Men’s Health, and TIME Best Inventions 2019 Award.

But before the Heated Razor was released for sale, the GilletteLabs team wanted another layer of consumer feedback and validation, in order to fix any issues before the product went live. That was different – and risky. “ ‘I can’t remember the last time we announced a product nine months before launching it’,” Rizk says.

Its solution: Indiegogo. Unlike other crowdsourcing and crowd funding platforms, Indiegogo offered a corporate support option. A thousand or so people in joined the GilletteLabs Indiegogo site, which began in September 2018. The razor sold out in six days.

Most startups use Indiegogo as a source of funding. “But our intention was validation,” explains Rizk. GilletteLabs wanted testing done by – really, with – consumers. The early adopters who “backed” the program were asked about the box’s color choices, the device’s instructions, how acceptable the price was, whether the temperature was right.

Charging into the market

Those early backers ticked all the boxes that the team had identified as important. They were early adopters, willing to pay for a prototype, and happy to share feedback. The solid marketing platform made it easy to reach out to the participants, which the team did on four occasions.

GilletteLabs got the input it wanted. Based on the Indiegogo feedback, key features of the razor were changed. “They became part of the co-creation of the campaign,” says Rizk. For example, the two heat settings the early adopters preferred, 122F and 109F, were higher than the designers originally estimated. The team also adjusted the charging dock.

That’s not to say that this new form of engagement was deployed without internal tension. You worry when you do something totally new, Rizk admits. “People get nervous when you go to uncharted territories.”

Not everyone was sure about the Indiegogo plan. They raised questions about patents, whether others might swipe the idea, and whether it wasn’t just safer to go to market in the usual manner. To respond to the concern, Rizk and the GilletteLabs team shared case studies from other brands that had succeeded with this sort of early-experience experiment. They also pointed out failures from previous launches that’d earned negative responses.

The internal engagement paid off. A new idea spurred healthy debates, says Rizk, challenging the status quo. Once they came on board, “People in P&G got excited by the backers’ input,” he says.

If you’d like to see the outcome from these innovative engagement methods, be sure to stop by the P&G Lifelab at CES!