Mopping the Floor
with the Status Quo


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Mechanical engineers are constantly looking to create products that serve consumers. But sometimes they make it too complicated. Sometimes the answer could practically be right at your feet. For Harry West, CEO of Design Continuum, Atlanta, GA, it was. Then again, so was the question.

"Craig Wynett at Procter and Gamble got it started," he says. "He came to us and asked if we could build a team and come up with a better product for cleaning the floor. That took some thinking."

Observing people cleaning helped to develop the Swiffer. Image: Proctor and Gamble

And what better way than by hanging out at people's houses and watching them clean? So the team proceeded to do this at roughly 18 homes in Boston and Cincinnati. "The answer became clear after a while," he says. "You watched them mop and you saw half the time was spent cleaning the mop. You have to, otherwise you're just putting dirt back onto your floor."

And that moment was the point of conception for one of the more popular kitchen products on the market today: The Swiffer.

But did West and his team create a million-dollar prototype right away? Could it really be that easy?

Prototyping Process

Yes. West says the disposable cloths for the prototype were actually found in the aisles of Home Depot. "This whole thing is what you'd call a Frankenstein Model," he says. "We had an old broom, got paper towels, we found plastic tubes to spray water on the floor. We got a nozzle from a spritzer bottle, a little electric pump. Within a day, we hacked it. We're going to a model shop and cutting it up and getting it to fit. We created an ergonomically effective handle."

Using this simple collection, with the aid of a glossmeter, they showed that their prototype actually cleaned the floor better, a concern consumers had when the team first broached the topic with them. The ultimate result after handing it over to Procter & Gamble to improve and brand? A product used in millions of homes.

The prototype for the Swiffer consisted of an old mop, paper towels and plastic spray tubes.

Original Thinking

West, who's been a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and received his doctorate there, says one of the things his education taught him was to think clearly and be relentless. "You can't fake your way through engineering," he says. "You have to think and follow through. The insights of the Swiffer are obvious now but it wasn't obvious when we were first doing the research. Another issue I learned early is to not get sidetracked by all the 'fun things you can try.' Try to take the shortest, most direct path between the problem and the solution."

West also had it drilled into him over the years that you always have to prototype and test. Recalled West: "A friend told me some important words. 'If it ain't empirical, it ain't so.'"

In fact, he developed five-steps for this process:

  1. Alignment: Meet with the client until you're clear on what they want to do.
  2. Learn: Spend time out in the field in research with people who will use the product or service.
  3. Analysis: Take all you've learned and think about it fundamentally. What are the principles and the frameworks that have emerged?
  4. Envisioning, Prototyping, Testing, and Iteration: Create the prototype, test it with consumers, change it so it's better, then finalize the right direction for the client to move in.
  5. Deployment: Pulling information together as needed so the client can complete the product or service.

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

You can’t fake your way through engineering. You have to think and follow through. The insights of the Swiffer are obvious now but it wasn’t obvious when we were first doing the research.

Harry West, CEO, Design Continuum

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December 2012

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org