Future of tech lies in form and function
IT'S easy to overlook how you open your washing machine to load the laundry or the feel of your smartphone in your hand when you take a call.
But these are the little details that many technology companies consider when developing appliances and gadgets.
In fact, it's not enough to just make tech products that can perform merely their basic functions, said Associate Professor Arlindo Silva from the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
Prof Silva, from the university's Engineering Product Development pillar, told My Paper that convincing customers to buy a product is not easy because of this.
"These (basic) functions (of a product) must be provided in an innovative, easy and exciting way. The perceived quality of a product is all about the user experience conveyed to customers," he said.
"Buyers of various products usually purchase products based on the best design and functionality that their budget can support."
This is a far cry from more than 10 years ago.
In the early 2000s, a pretty-looking product was considered one that didn't function well by many consumers, said Joon An, a chief global design manager at LG Electronics' Corporate Design Center.
If a common electronics device "looked good", it was perceived that this was to hide "the bad performance of the device", Mr An told journalists on a media visit to the South Korean tech giant's Seoul headquarters.
For instance, when the late Apple chief executive Steve Jobs launched computer products in the past, market reception to them wasn't good, in part because it was considered "taboo to decorate" a computer's exterior, Mr An said.
But the mood has since changed. "Because of the popularity of (Apple's) iPhone, customers know that good devices can come with good design as well," added Mr An.
DESIGN AS AN ADVANTAGE
In LG's case, it has arguably been trying to use design as a competitive advantage.
One of the reasons why the company's brand of washing machines is tops is due in part to the washers' design, said Mr An.
According to data from research firm Euromonitor, LG led sales of home laundry appliances last year in many countries such as Thailand, India, South Korea, Russia and Chile.
For one thing, LG has sold red-coloured washing machines, which Mr An said were "really popular in the United States market". This is understandable considering that many washing machines come in the standard white palette.
The company also came up with washers fitted with squarish doors instead of the typical round ones, a result of extensive consumer surveys - washing machines with square doors were perceived to have a larger laundry capacity than those with round ones, even if their actual capacities were the same.
With its fridges, LG has attempted to make them more stylish as well.
In the past, LG tried to differentiate its fridges from other brands based on colour. But now, one of its latest refrigerators, which has another door within either of the appliance's double doors, sports curved glass on the front with a patterned finishing.
The double door-in-door fridge is expected to be available in Singapore next year for between $5,000 and $6,000; a similar price point as LG's current single door-in-door fridge sold here.
AGAINST THE NORM?
For some companies, copying the designs of competitors might "seem like a good way to acquire market share... especially when competing on price", said Prof Silva.
"(But) the real breakthrough products often create their own markets where there were none before," he said.
"They create their market in the sense that people do not even realise they need that product - when this happens, the probability of a product becoming a market success grows exponentially."
At least in the smartphone realm, there are often criticisms and accusations levelled against rival companies for snitching designs from one another, with some cases even involving law suits.
In this context of companies making "safe bets" such as for smartphones, Mr An said LG designers "really struggle hard" so that a new LG product "doesn't look like someone else's a couple of years ago".
"Designers in LG are really trying to fight against the overall trend because that's how a new trend is created," he said.
At the same time, don't expect the design of products like smartphones to be too exciting.
Contrary to what some experts think, Mr An said "normal consumers are not early adopters" and "not really comfortable with something too new".
"We have to stay within the boundaries of (what) people think a smartphone looks (like). It has to somehow look like what was before."
MORE THAN LOOKS
But it's not always just how a product looks when it comes to design - it's also about improving the experience of how consumers use a product and having unique features.
For practical Singaporean consumers, they also consider factors beyond aesthetics, said Jay Yang, LG Electronics Singapore's product director of home appliances.
This includes energy and water savings, hygiene elements, as well as "features that will help ease their busy lifestyle", he said.
At the start of 2000, LG embarked on research into vacuum cleaners and sought to understand the issues consumers faced. Some 5,000 consumers were surveyed across nine countries for 10 years.
The result of this was the company's cleaners without power cords which it collectively dubs CordZero. This means that consumers don't have to contend with tripping over cords or plugging the cleaner in and out of power points when moving from one part of the home to the next while vacuuming.
One of these machines is a canister model which LG claims can run for some 40 minutes. It even has sensors to move the cleaner along with a user as he vacuums.
As premium cleaners go, it retails for $1,299 here.
LG's door-in-door fridges aren't just for show too.
On the fridge's main door is a button you can press to open another door within. This reveals a compartment separated from the main storage area, so a user can more easily access commonly used items.
Cold air loss can be cut by some 40 per cent, said LG, since the whole fridge door doesn't have to be opened. This translates to energy savings while items in the main storage area are kept cool.
There's even an air purification system in LG's fridges that is said to help remove bacteria and food smells.
Seeing a need for some households to separate their laundry for washing - such as kids' muddy clothes as well as white and coloured clothes - the firm also developed a washing machine with a second, smaller washer at the bottom.
This Twin Wash machine is slated to be launched here sometime in the second quarter of next year.
The company also slimmed down a steaming closet, called the Styler, which can clean clothes such as suits, coats and sweaters (sans leather ones) using steam.
Three pieces of clothing on hangers and a pair of pants can be refreshed at any one time, with the Styler said to be able to remove wrinkles and odours from them. Pillows and soft toys can be cleaned too.
LG made the new Styler smaller after considering that consumers don't accumulate a lot of clothes to clean in a day with the closet, unlike washing machines, as well as the high price point of the previous Styler.
The new Styler is expected to be available in Singapore in the second quarter of next year for $2,999.
SCI-FI MEETS REALITY
Invariably, new products are designed to meet future demands and scenarios.
"We always have to think ahead of what consumers want... If we look at (the needs) now, it will be too late when we produce a product," said Mr An.
Besides using market data as a base for designing new products, he said designers also have to rely on their intuition, which requires them to monitor how design trends in the world - including those in other fields such as automobiles, fashion and art - are changing.
Designers also need to understand the different facets of people's lives and their environment, Mr An added.
And things are speeding up. Prof Silva noted that with the life cycle of a product now getting shorter, "product innovation is being done at an accelerating pace".
A global survey found that over the last 50 years, there was a 400 per cent reduction in the the time it takes to market a new product, he noted.
The caveat? "Many products do not succeed: Only 56 per cent of new products achieve their financial goals and only 51 per cent are launched on time," said Prof Silva.
Still, tech companies are shooting for the stars and entering a field that used to be considered science fiction.
For instance, many are looking at appliances and gadgets that are "smart", in that they can connect to a network, such as the Internet, to relay information or receive commands. And mobile devices like smartphones look to be the "remote control" for many of these gadgets.
Last year, search giant Google acquired Nest Labs, which makes smart appliances such as a Wi-Fi-connected thermostat that can be controlled with a mobile device. The gadget is said to be able to learn which temperatures a user prefers based on his schedule and then heat or cool the home accordingly.
Nest claims this can help users save on power bills.
LG, too, is looking at Internet-connected appliances, such as washing machines that can update the user through a chat-like app on his smartphone when it has finished washing the laundry. You can also control the washer remotely with your smartphone.
The company also has a new version of its Hom-Bot robotic vacuum cleaner that can act like a roving closed-circuit TV camera to monitor your home (and pets) - it can relay real-time images to you through an app.
It's not clear if the smart washing machine will reach Singapore shores but the new Hom-Bot, which can be set to automatically clean the floor, is expected to be available here in the second quarter of next year.
Daniel Shin, a vice-president at the LG Electronics Home Appliance and Air Solution Company, said that he expects much growth in Internet-connected products in two to three years' time.
The head of the Middle East, Africa and Asia sales and marketing function division said LG also wants its appliances to be able to connect to other brands' products in the home too and not just LG's own products.
"Connectivity will be a major trend of home appliances in the future, so customers can enjoy (more) convenience... by using (Internet-connected) appliances. And I believe there will be dramatic changes," he said.
The writer's trip was made possible by LG.