Kensington's Peripheral Challenge

Focusing on customer experience, the computer accessory purveyor turns out a stylish and crowd-pleasing new collection of wares

Kensington Technology Group, the U.S.-based maker of computer peripherals, may seem to have little in common with Japanese video game company Nintendo (NTDOY). But I have noticed some interesting parallels. Like Nintendo, Kensington has found itself in third place, chasing two much larger competitors, one of which is Microsoft (MSFT). Like Nintendo, Kensington's resources are far exceeded by its two competitors (the other one is Logitech (LOGI)).

Like Nintendo, Kensington's competitors are locked in a battle to deliver more sophisticated technology and longer lists of features. And like Nintendo, Kensington has chosen to opt out of the technology arms race and turned to product experience as a competitive advantage.

The result is Kensington's Ci Lifestyle Collection, a new line of mice and keyboards for home and mobile users designed with extensive field research on customer experience in mind. But as Juan Ernesto Rodriguez, senior global product manager for Kensington explained to me, shifting Kensington's thinking from a technology-driven approach to an experience-driven one wasn't easy.

Everybody Sees the Same Product

Kensington's market research had uncovered a disheartening fact: Consumers didn't understand the value of product features, and couldn't tell the difference between Kensington's products and those of its competitors. "No matter what we put beneath the hood, everybody sees the same product," Rodriguez said. That finding led them to a strategic shift in direction.

"We typically would lean toward asking ourselves, 'Where's the next technology?'" Rodriguez told me. "As a technology company, you want to go find that next, better, faster thing to build your products on. What we needed to do as a company was come to a complete stop and say, 'They can do that better than we can. We might not win this battle through technology alone, so we've got to look to something else.'"

For help in identifying that something else, Kensington brought in San Francisco design firm One & Co. "We knew we were too close to the problem," Rodriguez explained. One & Co partner Jonah Becker lead a small team combining Kensington and One & Co staff on a field research study to uncover the behavior and psychology of home and mobile users. "It was about talking to people and seeing what their perceptions were—but it was also about getting into their homes and seeing what their problems were," Becker said.

Focus on Emotion

Having product designers instead of dedicated researchers conduct the study gave the designers a head start in thinking about the creative problems they'd be facing—and strengthened the research because designers asked questions and noticed details that might have gone overlooked by someone else. "There's an emotional connection that people have to products," Becker told me. As a product designer observing users firsthand, "you're just more in tune to how people interact with the product. You notice how someone holds it, notice all these different subtle interactions," Becker said.

But the team didn't follow the research by going straight into design. Instead, they took a step back and formulated a product experience strategy that "basically became the foundation of every thought throughout the process that we put into the product," according to Rodriguez. The strategy eventually took the form of three "design pillars," which were used to guide the work of the team as the design evolved.

The first of the team's design pillars was "thinness." The team saw the trend toward thinner technology products, such as laptops and LCD displays, as an opportunity that hadn't yet been explored for input devices.

They took particular inspiration from Motorola's (MOT) RAZR phone, which had revitalized the company's prospects in the market entirely by virtue of its compelling, thin design. "Somebody literally put a RAZR phone down on the desk and said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could just mouse with this?'" Rodriguez said.

The Comforts of Thinness

But emphasizing thinness was not just a matter of keeping up with design trends; it had practical benefits as well. "Several people [in the research study] mentioned that they don't carry a mouse with them because it's too bulky," Becker said. He told me about one photograph, of a woman carrying a stylish laptop bag, that drove the point home. "You see this one photo, and it really tells that story," Becker said. "She has this nice sleek bag, and she has this big bulge in it. Because that's the only way her mouse fits in there."

As a result, the team decided that the mobile mouse should be no taller than the height of a typical laptop when closed. Some of the early designs were actually a little too thin—they looked great, but were hard to grip comfortably. Adding a rubber edge to the mouse emphasized its thinness visually while also providing an easy way to grip the mouse.

The second design pillar was "convertible power." Battery life was a particular source of unease for wireless device users. Manufacturers have typically tried to address this with increasingly sophisticated battery life indicators, but Rodriguez said the research showed them this was the wrong direction. "If I tell you you're low on gas, but you can't find a gas station, there's very little you can do," he said.

Of Mice and Mobility

Similarly, frustrating experiences with Wi-Fi networking, Bluetooth devices, and mobile phones have made users wary of all kinds of wireless devices. "People don't understand the difference between all the wireless technologies that are out there," Becker said. "It's just something communicating with something else, and it doesn't always work."

To ease users' anxiety, the team decided to enable the device to work with or without wires. Other mice on the market have provided similar functionality—if the user remembered to bring the wire along. Kensington's new devices would address this by having the wire coiled inside the mouse itself. But that presented another design challenge. A full-size USB connector tucked away inside the mouse would make the mouse too bulky, violating the team's objective to maximize the thinness of the device.

A mini-USB connector would fit, but would require the user to bring along a separate adapter, an experience no better than with other designs on the market. The team came up with a smart and simple solution: It was already planned that the mouse should use a wireless adapter that plugged into a USB port. Why not have the adapter do double-duty as a wired adapter as well?

Brains and Beauty

The third design pillar was a concept they called "sleep state." One of the most important revelations from the research was the idea that the product experience doesn't end when the user stops using the product. For home and mobile users, the product remains part of their environment—it doesn't get left behind at the office. "When I'm done using the product, what is it doing?" Becker asks. "Is it this hunk of junk just sitting there, making a mess of my home?"

Reducing the sense of visual clutter created by computer peripherals in the home became an essential design goal. Part of that strategy was to make the devices feel less like office equipment. Instead of the silver and black uniform worn by competitors' devices, Kensington explored colors and finishes that felt more like home furnishings. What they saw in the field research was "not always the perfect photo shoot, where people have this pristine home office," Becker said. "People have desks in their living rooms, next to their kitchens. There are a lot of common family areas that a lot of the time are not being used as work spaces."

The sleep state concept led to some of the most elegant design touches in the new line. The mouse's wireless adapter is stored in the bottom of the mouse, where it also protects the optical sensor and automatically switches the mouse off. The keyboard is designed to be stored by flipping up on end, revealing its underside—where Kensington has provided a place to display a photo.

Selling It to the Organization

The team found the three pillars valuable in communicating their experience-driven strategy to the rest of Kensington. "The pillars became part of telling that story of the product experience," Rodriguez told me. "I found them to be really key tools in selling the concepts in the organization."

According to Becker, their goal in seeing the process through from research to final design was to create the total product experience. "You have to be satisfied with a product in all facets of your experience with it, whether it's something you're doing eight hours a day, or it's something you do once every six months."

For Kensington, this approach has changed the way they think about product design. "If you ask most people what design is, they say it's what the product looks like: pretty colors, nice finishes," Rodriguez told me. "The breakthrough for us internally was the realization that design goes much deeper."

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