It’s an often understated part of a product’s design—but no less important than any other aspect of usability.
It determines everything from where a user places a product in a home, to whether or not consumers in specific countries are willing to buy it. And it can be a defining factor in a company's portfolio.
It’s known as CMF—or colors, materials, and finish. It’s the “look and feel” of a physical product. But it doesn’t just come down to individual style preferences. Cultural and behavioral factors also play a significant role in determining and guiding good CMF design.
And it’s something that the folks at iRobot factor into their user-centered design process. After all, their products—which include the popular Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner—aren’t your typical domestic appliances. They often require a designated area in the home that allows them to autonomously clean where, when, and how you want them to. They’re as much a piece of furniture or decor as your couch or rug.
That means iRobot needs to make sure that their products can fit and function in homes across the world: from the upscale luxury condo in Manhattan, to the farmhouse in rural Wales, to the 500 square foot apartment in Tokyo.
CMF is one of many forms of user research that Vanessa Wiegel, Senior Manager of Design Research at iRobot, and her team conduct. She believes that the lessons she has learned from CMF design can not only help those working on in-home, consumer products, but can also serve UXRs conducting contextual, international, and digital research.
We caught up with her before she gave a talk at the 2021 UXR Conference on this topic to discuss her background and CMF research best practices.
dscout: You used to work for PBS on shows like Arthur before transitioning to a consumer robotics company. How did you go from children’s media to a much more tech focused industry?
Vanessa Wiegel: I actually came from a communications background. I studied film and television in undergrad, and one of my first jobs was at WGBH, the primary content producer for PBS. I started in the design department, and then migrated over to children's production, where I produced and designed websites, mobile apps, digital games, and broadcast TV series such as Arthur. It was while working on an Arthur-themed pediatric health website that I first learned about UX design. I began consciously thinking about user needs and core tasks, and how to best design the IA and user interface. There was no formal [UX] capacity within WGBH, but working on this project sparked my interest in the field.
I learned about a graduate program in human factors over at Bentley University, and sat in on a foundational course that explained how cognitive science and psychology principles can be applied to product design. I was fascinated by the topic and decided to pursue a master's degree while continuing to work in children's media. This enabled me to bring back and immediately apply what I was learning to the work I was doing.
How did you end up at iRobot?
I spent almost a decade working on those projects for PBS, and found the work to be very rewarding. However, I was increasingly splitting my time between production management, similar to a product manager role, and doing the user research—and I really wanted to focus on the latter.
I was leading play testing, conducting heuristic evals, and training designers and developers on how to conduct generative and summative research, but I wanted focus. After considering offers from several companies, I felt iRobot was the best fit.
The idea of working with robots and designing that interaction model between humans and robots was such a unique opportunity. iRobot also had no existing user research team. So, I was able to come in and build a team from the ground up, which was something that was very appealing to me.
If you take industrial design into account, and you design the robot in a way that is compatible with the home environment, then it fades into the background and becomes part of the home.
I would imagine it was a little bit jarring going from designing products and experiences for PBS to more industrial design.
It was interesting because a lot of the research I had been conducting previously was with children, as well as educators and parents. Some of the practices and the techniques you use to elicit information from children, and engage them in play testing, are a bit unique to that environment. But the core principles of good user research remain the same.
The fundamentals that I was applying to that work just carried over very well to working with robots. How do you design and choose how the robot should move? What it should sound like? Different modalities it could use to communicate, like lighting, for instance?
That brings us to your upcoming talk at UXR Conference that focuses on CMF design. Why is this an important topic for other UX designers to be aware of?
I think about the scope of research that we conduct at iRobot: we have a mobile app, we're designing voice interactions with Alexa and Google Home, we have the software and the hardware on the robot. But there’s also this important aspect of industrial design, and the challenge and complexity of designing a product that is sold globally. How do you successfully design a product that lives in homes across the world?
When I was embarking on this research about three and a half years ago, I looked for resources and there really wasn't much out there. So I developed my own approach through running studies and experimenting with different methods.
It seemed like the perfect fit for the UXR Conference because I'm sure there are other researchers who could benefit from the lessons I’ve learned, and best practices I’ve developed.
You touched on this a little, but why is CMF so critical to a product like Roomba?
Roomba isn’t your typical vacuum that you can hide in a closet. Our products are part of the home. They live on a charging dock on the floor, and must be out and accessible to the spaces you want them to clean. They’re almost more akin to a piece of furniture in your home. They’re not just technology. They’re blurring that line between technology and home decor.
If you don't take the visual design into account, that's going to affect where people place the product, which means they might not place it in the ideal, most functional location in their home, which, in turn, affects their overall experience and success with the product. Whereas if you take industrial design into account, and you design the robot in a way that is compatible with the home environment, then it fades into the background and becomes part of the home.
Think about your key markets. And then, within those regions, think about finding diversity in terms of climate, housing types, new and old construction, etc..
That universality factor has to be a tricky riddle for a product like the Roomba.
What I focus on are the benefits of doing this research in context. When someone sees the product in person, they can touch it and they can feel it. So, it's not just about color; it's the materials. Does it seem durable? Am I going to leave fingerprints on it? Is it going to accumulate dust once I've been using it? Doing this research in the home is incredibly valuable.
There are a variety of different methods that you can employ and mix and match. For instance, one thing we often do is a home tour. We walk around the home with the user, as they explain their routines and products they've chosen to bring into their home and why. They also talk through some of the less ideal choices or compromises they've had to make.
For example, a user with pets might say: "Here’s our sofa. I really wanted a white leather one, but I was worried it would show cat hair and scratches." So now we know having a pet is actively influencing their purchase decisions, and that they care about both aesthetics as well as durability.
Card sorts can also help you understand purchase considerations and how visual design is prioritized alongside other factors such as price and ease of use.
This is where recruiting becomes important. If your participants are completely apathetic to what a product looks like, then you're not going to get the feedback you need to refine the design. You're trying to reach those users who consider visual design when they are purchasing an in-home product, because they're the ones you need to please.
Having physical prototypes that participants can interact with is so valuable. We often design our prototypes in a modular way, such that you can add and remove components, and facilitate a co-design activity where participants can design their ideal robotic vacuum.
Are there any common mistakes that you see that come up in your own practice or elsewhere when it comes to CMF research?
Making sure you have the right recruit. It’s important to leverage existing best practices and recruitment criteria to ensure you are capturing current and potential users of your products. You should also determine if and how to ensure diversity for specific criteria, such as recruiting users with a mix of home sizes, interior design styles, and, in our case, floor types. And, as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to screen for users who care about the visual design of products. If you're not talking to the right people, it's going to affect your data.
You’re not always going to get it perfect, but you’re getting as close to perfect as possible.
As much as I would love to conduct research in every country in which we sell our products, that's not feasible. Think about your key markets. And then, within those regions, think about finding diversity in terms of climate, housing types, new and old construction, etc..
Then, when you’re conducting the research, be attentive to what aspects of the designs are most versatile in those home environments, and which ones are the most and least polarizing.
You're trying to find that happy medium and the design elements that are going to work in most user homes.
Balancing all this while creating a research practice at iRobot must have been no easy feat. What are some pieces of advice you’d give to someone starting a similar practice at another org?
One key point is to really understand the environment you're entering into and where they are in terms of UX maturity. Just because they have an existing user research team doesn't necessarily mean the organization, as a whole, understands UX and how it should be integrated into their product development process.
For instance, you may need to explain and demonstrate the value of qualitative research, and how it can be powerfully combined with quantitative insights.
Those first few projects that you do within the organization are proof points for the value of your work. So, it is worth taking the extra time to make sure they are executed exceptionally well..
In my case, the more studies we conducted at iRobot, the greater the word of mouth. Awareness and demand for our work grew organically. Now, our main challenge is to meet the high demand for user research within the organization. But that’s a good problem to have.
Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.