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iPhone Mania vs. real user value – Kitchen Trends @ IFA vs. Kitchen Furniture

After the autumn round of fairs in Berlin (IFA 2013) and the wood-industry home base in western Germany (“Küchenmeile A30“), it might be useful to compare these two industries as both are trying to form the future of the kitchen market.

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First Market: Home appliances follow the iPhone – not the User

Like most technology markets the home appliance giants seem to follow Apple and the ubiquitous iPhone. Most developments take place around the user interface and the iPhone trend to put all the app-based control into your pocket. The companies want to emulate the attractiveness & success of the iPhone by copying the approach. The most striking example was the “iHood” dubbed hood by Gutmann that really is an enlarged copy of an iPhone 4.

On most stands at last years IFA, the sales guys and girls were equipped with iPads (or iPad copies) to show the clients their novelties on a shiny, attractive touchscreen. Most new products also have mini touchscreens incorporated into them. As if the user interface for an oven has got the same usage patterns and needs for task based flexibility as a smart phone.

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The main misunderstanding is that touchscreens are not an aesthetic statement and a technology in their own right. Looking into the detail, most of these shiny screens and apps do not make a lot of sense. The flashy Samsung fridge with integrated app lets you enter the contents of your fridge including use-by-dates via a touch screen and through a (very detailed) menu. This is not very user-friendly as the digital book-keeping of your weekly food buys takes longer that fetching them from the supermarket. The picture-taking Siemens fridge is a more common-sense approach and possibly even based on the consumer insight that the users do not remember the content of their fridge in every detail.

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The futuristic digital home was a comic vision on Jacques Tati’s famous “Mon Oncle” kitchen scene, and has been a hot trending topic in the appliance industry for the last 10 years. Actually, the first bluetooth applications were discussed by Toshiba in 2001/2002 (PC World).

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Until now the idea of a central control & command over your entire home has remained in the domain of trend shows and tech visions. The conversion rate into reality is fairly low. This is due to the fact that there is still no common interface technology that drives all of these systems and therefore the investment hurdle for each household is high, possibly with the horrible side-effect of having to use separate user interfaces & apps for different home appliance brands. The new kid on the block Qivicon seems to offer a network that could serve as a neutral network, but it is currently only backed by MIELE and SAMSUNG.

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But: What is the real user value of the digital home? If you dream of an app driven kitchen, very well. Looking at the small-scale attemps by WMF (Cook assist, test report by MobileGeeks.de here), Gorenje (iQCook) and Fissler (Vitavit edition) to link a measuring device to cooking guide or to the oven, it is obvious that they are more useful to drive the image of the company than really drive sales. For example we tried to test Gorenje’s iQCook a few months ago at a dealership, but did not find any dealers that stocked this great product (at that time the only marketable solution linking pot and stove). The competition other solutions are giving guidance to the cook, but do not reduce the heat when needed.

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WMF Cook Assists (Image via mobile geeks)

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Gorenje’s iQCook

Digital convenience? Maybe the classic microwave oven is the obvious form of digital convenience the user is looking for. If you go to the length of „real cooking“ even in the most basic form (washing and cutting vegetables, pouring oil into the pot, putting in the vegetables, stiring, seasoning and serving them) what is the user value of being able to control limited parts of the cooking process via an app? I could think of long cooking processes (low temp cooking or baking) where such a cooking temperature control (like the iGrill thermometer & app) might make sense. But would that really replace a regular control view of the slow roasting turkey? I guess not.

What drives this (fake) innovation in the appliance market?

There are two powers pushing the companies to create these „novelties“. Although not as geeky as Silicon Valley, home appliance companies perceive themselves as tech companies. And like these they suffer from the first mover syndrome for all tech trends. The predominant belief is that you have to be the first in a new technology to become the market leader. The aim is technology leadership – not user value.

Interestingly Apple is not a first mover. There where a lot of mp3-players before the launch oft he iPod, a lot of smart phones before the iPhone and a lot of tablet PCs before the iPad. Apple champions both user-focussed design (user interface, software eco-system, external design) and an excellent marketing (anouncements via key-note, prior PR build-up, campaign integration, campaign roll-out). The iPod was a user-centred re-invention of the existing mp3-Player and changed they way we consume music.

The other power is the predominant trend to mistake form for content. I frequently heard the notion of „We applied an Apple design philosophy“ to our new product. So here come round edges, combination of white (WMF Coffee pad machine), glass and brushed steel or aluminium.

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Maybe after costly copying Apple for some years and rushing to be the first with a new badly executed technology or application, could you please start thinking about the user again and the way they use current products, to come up with new user-focussed ideas? This would be something new and exciting, really.

Second Market: Kitchen furniture gets rid of all handles

In the kitchen furniture world, all oft he mass-market kitchen producers are launching handle free kitchens. The move is seen as driven by market leader Nobilia’s launch of „Line N“.

The assumption is that now you can get a clean modern handle-free look at a price of well below 9.000 EUR that was previously a lot more expensive. Until a few years ago handle-free was a domain of the italian and german luxury kitchen makers. Now the question is: what is the (visible) difference between Bulthaup and the market leader NOBILIA and what is the (again: visible) difference between a 40.000 EUR and a 8.000 EUR kitchen.

Handle free kitchens look cool but are usually difficult to use. „Where do you push to open this door?“, „Is this a door or a drawer?“ are just two practical questions that the design denies to answer. These new kitchens look like living rooms with a line of shiny boxes. Nothing reminds you of the usage of a kitchen. These are kitchens without cooking. In a twist of irony, the mastermind behind Bulthaup’s success from the 1980ies, Otl Aicher, created the notion of „a kitchen for cooking“ with a pro-like approach to the beginning trend of gourmet home cooking.

The move by Nobilia is more trade-oriented than consumer-oriented, we think. How can you grow as a market leader? You fill the niches currently occupied by niche producers. This might eventually kill the weaker designer/luxury brands.

Bulthaup finds their salvation in more elaborate cultural difference, stressing the unique positioning of the brand above mere kitchen cabinet makers as a kind of architect’s buddy brand. This positioning worked well for Vitra. Maybe Bulthaup is the going to be the only kitchen design brand to remain in the upmarket segment.

Comparison of appliance & furniture markets

Interestingly these two markets aim for the same user and the same usage context, but show two completly different approaches. Home appliances see their bright future in emulating the iPhone (and other smart touchscreen devices) as the new centre of home control, they want to place the user in a lounge chair but in total control of all their home appliance boxes.

The furniture companies want to get rid of the cooking by designing kitchens that look like living rooms. No handles and ideally no appliances in sight.

Is this really the bright future for kitchens?

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