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For years, a sleek, stainless-steel Sub-Zero fridge has reigned as King of Cool in the kitchen. Its streamlined, industrial looks evoked the pro-quality performance that upscale consumers crave. But last year, a team at frog design doing research for a new high-end oven found attitudes were changing: Potential upscale buyers now want "warm" looking appliances. In other words, stoves and other units that are best described as homey, hearth-like, even soulful—the opposite of slick, metallic, and, well, cold.
"The kitchen is the hub of the home," says Adam Richardson, frog's strategy director. "But people told us they don't like leaning up against sleek appliances. And they have fond memories of their grandmother's old-fashioned oven."
The design of the new TurboChef Double Wall Speedcook Oven, as it's called, is more than a story about the new trend in appliance styling. It's a story of a company adapting a commercial-grade product to the consumer market, and the hurdles that had to be overcome along the way. Headquartered in San Francisco, frog had been hired by TurboChef (OVEN) to develop a smaller residential version of its ultra-fast ovens, which are currently used in Subway fast-food restaurants and selected Starbucks (SBUX) locations.
TurboChef's reasoning was an obvious response to the growing high-end consumer appliance market. Total U.S. units shipped of household devices, ovens included, has increased 61% in the last decade, according to trade magazine Appliance. More specifically, ovens are quickly becoming a hot kitchen item—in the past year, big brands such as General Electric (GE) and Whirlpool (WHR) have introduced newer, faster ovens aimed at affluent consumers.
BUILT FOR EASE. The only question was how to position the Speedcook in the crowded, feature-rich marketplace. Steve Beshara, TurboChef's chief branding officer, says the company took its makeover plan out of Apple's playbook: Marry sexy design and user-friendliness with forward-thinking technology. In fact, one reason Beshara had turned to frog design was because of its Apple (AAPL) connections: Its co-founder Hartmut Esslinger designed the Apple IIC, among other Apple products, and creative director Cordell Ratzlaff is a former head of interface design at Apple.
Delivering the advanced-technology quotient of the Apple formula was easy. TurboChef's patented cooking system was already in use in its commercial ovens. The technology combines two targeted microwaves and a high-speed ventilation system that circulates air evenly at up to 60 mph. In the new residential oven, a rack of lamb can be roasted in 7 minutes—that's compared with 40 minutes in a conventional oven. And a 12-pound turkey can cook in 42 minutes, vs. four hours.
Frog's assignment was to tackle the design: giving the oven a distinctive look and the technology a user-friendly interface.
"Our mandate was that we don't want consumers to need an owner's manual. We wanted the oven to be as easy to use as an ATM," Beshara says.
"RETRO-MODERN FEEL." To find out what potential buyers wanted in an oven, beyond high speed and even cooking results, Richardson's colleagues prepared and ate meals with a variety of self-proclaimed Generation X and baby boomer foodies in the 35 to 60-plus age group, videotaping them discreetly. The frog researchers also talked with a variety of retail-sales staff members at both mass-market outlets like Home Depot (HD) and upscale stores such as San Francisco's BSC Culinary Resource, to determine buying trends.
That research led the team to the "warm" trend—that consumers are ready for something cozier than the Sub-Zero look. "The marketplace is populated with rectilinear shapes in ovens. Everything is simplified and technical. That's OK for a fridge," Beshara says. "We wanted a retro-modern feel that would suggest how our oven connects the past to the future."
Beyond styling, the designers realized a key challenge would be to distract consumers from the microwave aspect of the TurboChef residential oven. "Microwave cooking represents a technological advance over traditional baking, but is widely associated with low-quality food," says Richardson.
TURKEY SPECS. Hoping to reach a less techy, more crafted feel, frog began the design process with an extended period of sketching. While most design projects use sketching to come up with preliminary ideas, the TurboChef team delayed before translating the drawings into 3D digital models. "The hand drawings helped us develop sculptural lines and maintain a homey, soulful touch," says Andy Logan, frog's project lead. "[Computer] renderings of our ideas, we thought, might produce lines that were too crisp, too modern."
The team developed drawings of eight working concepts—ranging from a minimalist rectangular shape to broadly curved—and consulted with TurboChef's engineers to make sure that there would be no conflict between the designs and the technology.
The speed of TurboChef's consumer oven hinges on a cavity of specific proportions. The dimensions maximize the specific flow of heat, air, and microwaves that characterizes the oven's cooking method. Altering the proportions of the cooking cavity was not an option. The TurboChef engineers had already pushed the size of the chamber as far as they could, making it big enough to accommodate a large, 26-pound turkey. (As Richardson says, "Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of cooking events.") But that still left TurboChef's offering about 3 inches shorter than a conventional oven.
FAMILIAR CONTROLS. Worried that consumers would still perceive the new oven as too small, the designers settled on a design with a slightly rounded roof, which didn't radically change the dimensions of the cooking chamber. The result was a more hearth-like shape that both drew the eye upward and distracted from the boxed-in feel of the cooking cavity. "The pleasing visual aspect made it seem big, but it also echoed the homey style we were looking to achieve," says Logan.
To finalize the design of the exterior, the designers constructed a foam-core prototype and a variety of mix-and-match knobs, handles, and a control panel. "We used it like a Mr. Potato Head doll," says Richardson, referring to the classic Mattel (MAT) toy. They solicited feedback on the knobs and their placement from a panel of engineers and advisers from TurboChef, and then moved on to the user interface of the control panel. How, they wondered, could they maintain the folksy feel of the overall design, but still convey the high-tech option of digitally storing more than 400 cook-on-command recipes? Moreover, how could they make it easy for users to search those 400 possible recipes or find the exact one that they are looking for?
Aesthetically, their solution was to create a digital display accompanied by a familiar-looking rotary knob, similar to the kind found on classic conventional ovens. "The knob screams out, 'Touch this first!' It's used to set the oven to bake or broil. We took advantage of a really familiar gesture that echoes the experience of using a traditional oven," says Ratzlaff. The user also turns the knob to select five other styles of cooking, from "toast" to "air crisp" to "favorites," or the recipes saved.
THE "OOH" FACTOR. The designers thought the knob would lend an old-fashioned feel to the oven and balance out the ultra-contemporary LCD screen and touch controls used to call up programmed cooking times and styles. The idea was that the familiarity of a knob would help people feel comfortable with the appliance, before they graduated to the oven's more computer-like interface.
Radical departures from standard control interfaces can alienate consumers. Sure, people love the iPod's scroll wheel, but they hated the scrolling iDrive controller that auto maker BMW introduced in the 7-series several years back. To ensure that the combo of knob controller and touch panel was intuitive and easy to use, the designers mocked up an interactive prototype in Flash and asked target consumers to play with the interface simulation, before the design was finalized. The feedback was positive.
When asked what moment signified design success, Logan recalls the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and Conference held in Chicago in April, a trade event where the oven made its public debut. "When we saw people coming up to the oven, touching the knob and handles, and saying 'ooh.' That's when we knew we really did it," says Logan.
The market success of TurboChef's new residential oven will be tested more empirically, of course, when it hits stores this fall.