Furniture has a quiet but profound impact on our lives. Task chairs provide comfort at work. A recliner can assist with the healing process in a hospital. A table with power allows students to share projects. We interact with furniture nearly every minute of the day, so it’s easy to take for granted. It’s also easy to overlook the thinking that goes behind the design.
KI looks at each new product and our design process as an opportunity to understand and improve the experiences of users. A Human-Centered Design process focuses on creating products that address meaningful user needs and that emphasizes empathy.
Our approach to human-centered design begins by observing people as they naturally interact with their environment. Does the current furniture support the activity in the space? How are people using the furniture – or not? Is the furniture intuitive?
We take these observations and incorporate them into our product development process. Often, these findings lead to unexpected yet necessary designs or features – such as the “boomerang” back design of the Ruckus chair, the asymmetrical lines of MyWay lounge and the intuitive operation of the Hiatus Sleeper Bench.
Tim Hornberger, KI's Vice President of Design & Development explains, “These products are the result of team members going into an environment, watching how people use the product and then creating solutions meeting needs people don’t even know they have.”
Designing for an Environment
From product managers to designers, KI spends time in real-world environments – observing not only the people and the furniture, but the interactions happening within the space. This allows us to obtain a genuine picture of what’s working and what needs aren't being met.
The Ruckus Collection was shaped by what we witnessed in schools: teachers using all four walls of a classroom with furniture that only faced front; time wasted trying to rearrange furniture from rows to groups; backpacks and supplies strewn around the floor creating distractions and tripping hazards.
By immersing themselves in classrooms, the design team realized a mobile chair with a wider field of view would allow the teacher to instruct from anywhere in the classroom and maintain a connection with the students. That takeaway was the genesis behind the “boomerang” design, which was expanded upon by watching how students sat in their existing chairs.
Scott Bosman, Industrial Design & Surface Materials Manager noted, “the first thing we all noticed is students no longer sit like the old days where both feet are on the floor and they’re looking straight ahead listening to the teacher. Some had their legs up, some were sitting sideways. Position wise, it was all over the map."
Students were rarely seen seated in a traditional position. They sat with one leg curled up, on their knees, cross-legged, sideways, backward and even leaned on the back of a chair. We saw uncomfortable seating which caused students to be in perpetual motion – shifting, squirming, adjusting – trying to get comfortable. The movement was a distraction not only to the student, but to classmates and teachers as well.
"We saw how they sat and approached it by providing them a chair and desk that allows them to sit how they choose," said Bosman. From there, Ruckus was born. The final design looked unconventional but provided mobility, a wider field of view, the ability to sit a variety of ways and even to perch on the back. The unique back shape also allows students to use it as an arm rest or as a work surface.
“Students aren’t fighting the restrictions of the furniture, they can be comfortable in multiple positions,” Bosman said.
KI's design team hasn't limited the process to just K-12, colleges and universities are also included in the human-centered design approach. While younger students moved constantly, college students were seen doing quite the opposite – often lounging in a chair for long periods of time to study or even catch a nap between classes.
We wanted to develop a lounge chair collection - eventually called MyWay - that allowed students the freedom to sit/lay horizontally and vertically. MyWay's asymmetrical design provides a more relaxed seating angle. Offering a variety of arm styles – armless, high, low, combination high/low, and an arm with a worksurface multiplied how students could rearrange the chairs and sprawl out. For example, when two chairs with opposite combination arms (high/low and low/high) are pushed together, the two low arms meet to form a natural support underneath the knees for someone laying lengthwise across the two chairs.
Another nuance of the MyWay design is intentionally making every horizontal surface flat to allow students to choose how they sit. <View your sitting style>
Understanding and addressing the needs of our users through product design leads to real benefits. It’s why we place so much value on real-world observation.
“What motivates me every day is trying to make people’s lives better,” said Sabrina Schwietzer, one of KI's product marketing managers. “We interact with furniture so much everyday that there’s a very distinct possibility it can make your life experience better.”
That was the crux behind the Hiatus Sleeper Bench. Caregivers in healthcare settings often times felt frustrated or awkward when trying to convert a hospital’s sofa into a sleep surface. Either they didn’t quite know how to operate the sleeper or had to track down staff for assistance.
We designed around the notion of intuitive operation for visitors, patients and staff alike. The result was a sleeper bench that easily converts with the pull of a visible loop handle. In addition, our designers conveniently added power access to the front of the sleeper bench, eliminating the need to search for an available outlet or move furniture to access a wall outlet.
“It makes it easy and convenient for a patient’s loved ones to stay overnight.” Bosman said. “How valuable is that if you’re ill and you’ve got someone by your side?”
KI counts on the observations made during field research to lead to more intuitive, innovative designs. Designs that keep people’s needs at the forefront, providing them with a solution that is truly human-centered.
“The basics are always going to be there: ergonomics, aesthetics, comfort and the human factor,” Bosman said. “It’s about designs that make life a little easier.”
Click here to learn more about KI's approach to human-centered design in education.