Appliances Photo Credit: Monogram

Q&A: Monogram’s Marc Hottenroth on the Power of Universal Design

We chat with the Director of Industrial Design to get the scoop on Monogram’s “empathy sessions.”

Have you ever stopped to think about why products (your car, your computer or even your toothbrush) are made the way they are? We often buy things based on aesthetics, but it’s more important to think about how we actually use a product—which is exactly why Monogram has been conducting “empathy sessions,” where they perform tests to simulate how people of varying abilities and ages can use everyday kitchen appliances.

The sessions are part of a larger movement to improve accessibility and to design universal products that can be enjoyed by all. We caught up with GE Monogram’s Director of Industrial Design, Marc Hottenroth, to learn more about universal design and to get the scoop on the products that have been designed as a direct result of the company’s empathy sessions.

Director of Industrial Design Marc Hottenroth in the GE Monogram test kitchen.
Director of Industrial Design Marc Hottenroth in the Monogram test kitchen.

WL: What is universal design?

MH: The idea behind universal design is making products for everyone by taking into account people of different ages with different physical abilities. Most of the time, design is based on experiences or knowledge or information that designers have gained from working on a project, so the idea of universal design is to be empathetic by immersing yourself in other users’ experiences.

WL: How long have you been hosting these empathy sessions?

MH: For quite a while now. We have a robust internship program and [the sessions] are a good way for us to ground ourselves and to also help students develop new ideas and new techniques. It’s a way to do something out of the norm to start a planning or brainstorming session. I always think of the creative process as filling up a bucket of ideas and experiences. The output will be a product of what you put into the bucket.

Bright LED lights illuminate the interior of this dishwasher, making it easier to see what's inside.
Bright LED lights illuminate the interior of this dishwasher, making it easier to see what’s inside.

WL: What are your empathy sessions like?

MH: We do different things to simulate the aging process. We have glasses that simulate macular degeneration and cataracts; we stuff cotton balls in our ears to simulate decreased hearing; we tape our knuckles to simulate arthritic conditions; we also have an empathy belly to see what it feels like to be pregnant.

French doors and pull-out racks make an oven more accessible by eliminating users' need to reach across a large oven door.
French doors and pull-out racks make an oven more accessible by eliminating users’ need to lean over a large drop-down door.

WL: What have you learned from these simulations?

MH: There’s a lot of things in the kitchen that may or may not be the best from a universal design perspective. I think things like flexibility of appliances [e.g. being able to put them in strategic spots in the kitchen] is important.

WL: What products have you designed as a result of these empathy sessions?

MH: We’ve created a French door wall oven. With these doors, you can get a lot closer and don’t have to lean over an open oven. It also has slide out racks so it’s really easy to put things in and take things out of the oven.

We designed a brightly lit dishwasher. When you open the door, bright LED lights illuminate the dishes, so they’re easier to see. We also created reversible tines, so if the dishwasher is on the left side of the sink, the tines that hold the dishes can be reversed.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a direct link—it’s a more cumulative versus linear result. We put unpopped kernels of popcorn in our shoes to simulate foot pain. This one’s specifically more difficult, but if you think about walking around in your kitchen, I guess it translates into creating smaller appliances that can be found throughout your kitchen. Imagine you’re preparing vegetables and can just reach over to a refrigerated drawer that’s next to the sink as opposed to walking across the room.

Another one I really like is our induction cooktop. It has a glide-touch interface, so there’s no knobs or buttons. It’s as easy as using an iPhone and is very responsive.

The glide-touch interface on Monogram’s induction stovetop makes it easier for people with less dexterous hands to cook.
The ice maker is located in a drawer that's placed higher up than the typical pull-out freezer.
The ice maker is located in a drawer that’s placed higher up than the typical pull-out freezer.

WL: What kind of response have you received from these types of products?

MH: The response has been great. Many times, when you have a product that’s easy to use, consumers aren’t thinking “The designers did a great job of understanding how I use this thing.” It’s a more subconscious response: “I don’t know what it is, but I really like this.” When people experience the French door oven, they first thing they say is “Wow! That’s really cool,” and we’ve had direct feedback from many consumers about the induction cooktop’s touch interface.

It’s about creating things that are useable and useful and delightful. That’s really what the magic is about industrial design. It can be extremely useful, but if it’s not delightful, it’s a drag.

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