Apr 19, 2024

10 years later: Reflecting on Nilfisk’s multi million-dollar success rooted in our People-driven Design Process

Have you tried to battle a big vacuum around your car, the hose stiff and unforgiving? Or just wrestled with it in any tight space, feeling like your cleaning companion doesn’t get you? The daily frustration was the reality for many Nilfisk users across diverse industries before we stepped in. Back then, Nilfisk's Aero vacuum sales were in decline. They desperately needed an innovation, and they found it in our user-centered approach.

10 years later: Reflecting on Nilfisk’s multi million-dollar success rooted in our People-driven Design Process
“We chose Design-People to help us better understand the needs of our end-users – and transform this understanding into new, easy-to-use features and a clear benefit story for our customers. The new AERO has strengthened both our brand and our sales. And three international design awards have confirmed the innovation of this approach.”

Thomas Elmer, Group Product Manager, Nilfisk

Our people-driven design process was not just a methodology; it was a commitment. We listened, observed, and collaborated with end-users, building trust and understanding them. It wasn't just about talk; it was about action – herein transforming insights into tangible business models.

While reaching their 5 year goal within 2 years was impressive, the real reward was seeing users' faces light up as they effortlessly cleaned their workshops, studios and homes. They felt heard and understood, because we took the time to understand them.

Below, we share our research process and make it very clear why user & customer experience innovation is really a powerful investment.

The power of partnership in the product design process

Nilfisk asked us to help them design a new AERO vacuum cleaner series superior to the competitors within the same price range. Apart from a few technical features and manufacturing methods, we were given a clean slate for the design. 

What truly made the vision into reality was the committed partnership with Nilfisk. They stood by us throughout the whole journey and were dedicated to seeing the design process through to completion, even when faced with pressure.

What else made the partnership special?

  1. A committed product manager who has steadfastly adhered to the vision and method in front of management. Consistently defending the process and its potential.

  2. Ongoing dialogue and input from diverse stakeholders – sales, development, and management. We created a space of understanding and trial and error, so the final product became even better. No question was off-limits, but every idea was taken seriously and thoughtfully considered.
  3. They recognized that evolution often involves embracing the unknown. During a product design process, the answers aren’t clear from the start, and while this is not comfortable, the trust in the process allows for unexpected and brilliant solutions.

Unveiling needs through a user-centered design process

Making improvements on the core product is great, but understanding what people truly need can lead to even more meaningful and differentiated results. This is where Design Thinking comes in, helping us ask the question: "What problem are we trying to solve for people?"

For Nilfisk, we used a user-centered design process all the way through. We actively observed, interviewed and conversed with end-users and stakeholders, and then used those insights to inform our designs. In this way, we ensured that the product would truly meet end-user needs.

Here’s what the design process looked like:

1. Self-testing

We started by testing Nilfisk products ourselves. This process revealed strengths like lightweight portability, but also weaknesses like awkward hose storage, inefficient filter cleaning, and leaky hoses. 

This early self-test helped us refine interview questions and prepare to more closely observe how users interacted with these pain points - i.e. how they handled the vacuum hose.

2. User research through interview and observation

To gain a deeper understanding of user needs, we conducted semi-structured interviews and observations with 14 diverse users in their natural work environments - painters on job, bricklayers and carpenters on construction sites, cabinetmakers in workshops and plumbers a.o.

We observed everything from unpacking to emptying routines. Noticed details like the impracticality of small wheels on construction sites and the funny DIY hacks some users unfortunately had to use, like using painter's tape to manage the hose!

They shared all their daily cleaning habits with us, from unpacking the vacuum to the emptying and filter changes. These observations, as Henrik Mathiassen, CEO of Design-People, says, "helped get answers to something you didn't know you had a question about."

By creating a trusting and open space, also with room for small-talk, we encouraged users to share their challenges and preferences. Simple questions like "where do you empty this?" led to unexpected discoveries, which later became the award-winning series.

Here is a note we made from one of the users we observed:

We could quickly conclude that his work demands a vacuum cleaner both powerful enough for metal shavings and spills, and portable enough for tight spaces and transportations between shop and production. 

This user needed a powerful, yet portable vacuum for metal shavings and tight spaces.

… Another user, a bricklayer, had his vacuum cleaner connected to an angle grinder to mill the old joints of a house front. While he needed a vacuum that could cope with the volume of mortar residue without getting filled too quickly, it was important that the vacuum wasn't too large, as he had to carry it around on scaffolds. The ease of handling during emptying was likewise important, as the mortar dust can get very heavy.

… A painter needed to connect the vacuum to a giraffe sander when cleaning ceilings and walls, thus needing the vacuum to be easier to handle and maneuver.

… Then there was the carpenter, who brought the vacuum along to suck up sawdust from power tools during smaller tasks. He wanted to minimize the mess as much as possible. To reduce cleanup time, he needed a vacuum that can collect debris well, while being portable and easy to manage.

… Another user's oil spill cleanup required a long hose, making packing and transport up to his big machines more manageable.

And so on… In essence, we noticed recurring needs for adaptability, mobility, and effectiveness, but the individual user journeys still varied greatly.

3. Our workshop - user journey mapping and organizing

By this stage, it was clear that a ‘vacuum cleaner’ holds very diverse meanings for different users. For Nilfisk, it was their core offering, while for end-users, it ranged from a necessary tool to a serious source of frustration.

Organizing the data

To get into more details and understand the user-journeys, we transformed the information we gathered into a matrix. 

It worked like a user journey map, where we mapped observations like preferred models, usage hours, storage needs, handling and more. We categorized these activities into three stages: before (preparation), during (usage), and after (post-use).

Concluding that specific vacuum variants were needed, this problem statement emerged:

"The vacuum user journeys vary greatly across industries. How can we design a core AERO DNA with special variants tailored to each user group?"

Collaborating with key stakeholders to map and visualize their unique journeys:

To gain a deeper understanding of the user journeys that were mapped in the prior matrix, we brought together key stakeholders across Nilfisk departments (sales, development, management, etc.) who were all very important to the new product's success. 

This was also critical for informed decision-making throughout the whole product development process.

Based on our 14 user-interviews, we created 7 representative user profiles, each reflecting a unique user type. We then conducted a workshop, where the participants were introduced to each profile by mapping out their everyday work situation by using cards depicting actions related to vacuuming. We call this exercise “feature mapping”.

The cards had illustrations and descriptions to map their unique user journeys, from setup to post-use frustrations, like battling the tangled cord.

The feature mapping looked like this:

  1. Cards were made, where each had a illustration of an action related to using the vacuum and a text description for context

  2. The participants analyzed the cards and categorized them based on what cards represented preparation (before), usage (during), and post-use activities (after)

  3. This helped us visualize the user's journey and making the user needs and priorities more clear

This exercise provided a visual representation of the user journey, making user needs and priorities clearer. By mapping all learnings into user journey steps, we identified potential DNA elements for each vacuum model.

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Results after applying insights from the design process

Our thorough investigation of user needs led us to create two distinct vacuum lines, the AERO and Attix, each tailored for specific tasks. While we knew about the necessity for these two families from the start, their precise features crystallized through our research.

We established a core Nilfisk brand DNA for the AERO series, complemented by different variants for different tasks. I.e. a smaller AERO model and a larger Attix with various hose attachment options, catering to both Nilfisk and private label customers.

AERO - a chameleon in the market

We targeted AERO (including 3-4 variants) for the lighter tasks that particularly favored the private sector for hobbies, home workshops, etc. The goal was to cater to a large spectrum of broader needs.

But first and foremost, a very important part of the AERO business for Nilfisk was to attract private label customers, and therefore it also became an important part of the design to make AERO partly modular to be able to adapt to OEM customers needs. This made us design some easy-to-implement variations of the topcover of the product and also consider how to implement other color combinations. This strategy has had a huge impact, as there are more than 15 private label customers today, all selling the vacuums under their own label/brand.

As part of other general AERO features, we designed the top to be flat, making it possible to place a toolbox, and with a small storage space below for easy storage and the multifunctional rubber strap for hose and cable control. This was inspired by the painter-tape solution, and those who needed to carry their vacuums with one hand. It allowed users to easily secure hoses during work, ensuring safety and convenience. We also created a new handle inside the waste bucket to simplify handling of heavy dirt loads when emptying.

Launched between 2013 and 2014, the award-winning AERO family achieved remarkable success. Sales grew rapidly - the demand from the market exceeded production speed and manufacturing facilities soon had to be doubled. While breaking Nilfisk records, their 5 year goal was almost reached within 2 years! It even became the company's best-selling vacuum cleaner ever.

Attix - Toolbox segment

We later developed Attix, a more professional series in 2 variants, suitable for heavier duties. I.e for the huge amounts of sawdust or frequent vacuuming needs, we mentioned above. All together perfect for the users who require more power. 

The Attix model followed later in 2015-16 and significantly contributed to Nilfisk’s growth, being particularly popular among private label customers. Demand soared beyond expectations, requiring additional production facilities. OEM partnerships flourished.

Take a look at the final Nilfisk Aero and Attix Product design DNA:

…And the final OEM design example:

To sum up, here are 3 reasons why investing in a good design process matters

  1. It’s a strategic choice. The design of a good product experience can be a key differentiator between a successful business and one that struggles to gain traction. It can directly drive your revenue and customer retention.

  2. If someone’s had a positive interaction with your brand, they might remember it through your design alone. The way it feels, works and functions. It can reinforce your brand’s market position as an innovative manufacturer.

  3. Think beyond sales and pure performance. The people you are looking to design for are the path to innovative solutions in the end. Nilfisk made a wise investment in thorough user insights, turning people-driven design into market success. It was neither more vacuum power nor capacity that was needed, but better usability and handling of the product that made a difference.

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Turning user insights and people-driven design into market success