Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Target Market is Not Obvious

munchkin bottle warmer Exhibit A: a bottle warmer by munchkin, a company focussed mainly on baby products. You pour water into the base, put the bottle in the holder, and press the button. A heating element boils the water to steam, which warms the bottle.


piezoelectric buzzer Exhibit B: a piezoelectric buzzer. When the bottle is done heating, the lighted button on the front changes from red to green and the product emits a series of four shrill beeps to announce its successful completion. It is obviously very proud of itself.


The issue, and point of today's rant? When using the bottle warmer you are likely holding a squirming, ravenously hungry baby who really isn't interested in the details of the food preparation equipment. You don't need an audible alarm, as you'll be staring desperately at the warmer ready to snatch the bottle out the instant it has made it from "cold" to "tepid." So at best, the buzzer is annoying. With twins this feature is actively harmful: you really, really don't want to wake the second baby until the first is done eating. Trust me on this one.

PCB showing removed buzzerExhibit C: the empty space on the PCB where the buzzer used to be.

I have to say, I found their user interface to disable the buzzer feature somewhat difficult: a Torx screwdriver and soldering iron.


Who was this thing designed for anyway, and why did they feel a buzzer was necessary? One can only speculate about the product requirements document and user story which led to this feature...

This is Evilyn, a new parent.

Closeup of evil face

When the baby is hungry she puts a bottle in the warmer, turns on the vacuum cleaner to drown out the crying, and goes to watch a little TV. When the bottle is heated there needs to be an indication noticeable despite both the vacuum cleaner and Oprah.

I'm kidding of course, I don't believe there was ever any such product plan. I think the problem is somewhat more subtle: the bottle warmer wasn't really designed for the parent at all — and no, it wasn't designed for the baby either.

Winning the Business

The munchkin corporation might well design some of its products, but as with any large company they would face the "build versus buy" decision for each niche product filling out their lineup. Their main concern is marketing and brand management. So the bottle warmer was quite possibly designed and manufactured by another company, and that other company does not sell directly to parents. Though the product obviously needs to perform its function, their customer is not the end user of the bottle warmer. Their customer is the buyer at the munchkin corporation. They might be designing it under contract or, quite possibly, designing it speculatively and hoping it will be picked up by one or more baby product companies. They have to make a good pitch, or be the most impressive offering at the trade show, to get the buyer to pick them instead of some other supplier.

In that sort of competition, a longer feature list can be the key to winning the business. The munchkin bottle warmer has several extra features: it can sterilize pacifiers and bottle nipples using steam, it has a lighted button which changes from red to green during operation, and it has the aforementioned infernal buzzer.

Designed By <insert company name here>

So there you have it. When you are vaguely dissatisfied with something you bought, if it just doesn't seem to have been completely thought through, this might be the reason. The designer's target was not you. It was targeted to catch the attention of the buyer for another company. This is also a primary reason why Apple has been so successful in consumer electronics: though they might buy components and software from outside, they never pick up a complete product to slap their logo onto. They retain control of the product design.

Designed by Apple in California