Last year, when Proctor & Gamble set out to make its Tide liquid laundry-soap packaging more appealing to seniors, the company turned to the last designers on earth you’d expect: college students. More to the point, it turned to the Live Well Collaborative, a University of Cincinnati-affiliated design non-profit focused on the 50-plus set and peopled by plucky undergrads too young to remember life before cell phones.
P&G calls this "naïve innovation."The reason? Something Matt Doyle, P&G’s director and senior researcher in heath care, calls "naïve innovation": the notion that what 18- to 22-year-olds lack in experience they make up for in creative chutzpa. And with Baby Boomers on track to out-populate all other age groups in just four years, with their global spending power projected to be a whopping $1.5 trillion a year, according to P&G estimates, it actually starts to make sense that the company would tap the youngest and brightest to improve the world of the oldest and richest. Proctor & Gamble is hardly alone. Formed just three years ago, Live Well has already won over the likes of Boeing, General Mills, LG Electronics, and Kraft. "It’s a new frontier that we’re in, and I really believe it’s the future," P&G’s Doyle says. "For us to have competitive advantage, we need to be connecting with the aging consumers in new ways and this naive innovation is center to that." For the Tide packaging, about 24 students gathered in a 10-week studio class at Live Well hq, a quaint 19th-century brick building that used to serve as a community center for the Cincinnati’s German residents. First, students sat in on a P&G-led crash course on the product. Then they got to work researching how seniors interact with the existing packaging. They observed women in their 70s and 80s trying to open the detergent by twisting off the cap –- and failing. Instead, the women rested the laundry soap on their hip and used the torque of an upturned hand to wrench the cap open. The students worked with the P&G digital team to develop a software that modeled — and aged — a human hand using mesh wireframes and forming skin over it. They also tested pressure and torque with assistance from the school’s engineering department. All of this helped to create a new cap, which P&G says requires less hand control than the original. (The company declined to disclose additional details, as the packaging hasn't hit stores yet.) Smart stuff. But is it really something P&G, what with its scads of MIT-trained researchers and $2 billion dollar annual R&D budget, couldn’t come up with on its own? Maybe, maybe not. The point, Doyle says, is that he believes 18- to 22-year-olds develop insights differently from P&G’s 9,000 staff scientists. Students are refreshingly ignorant of boardroom politics, manufacturing limitations, and shareholder expectations. They’re unhindered by familial duties, like children. In short, they’re free of the constraints that can choke innovation in a professional setting. A bonus, Doyle says: Students are generally more empathetic to the market group they’re designing for, which makes intuitive sense –- these consumers could be their grandparents. In the case of Live Well’s observational research on Tide, the elderly subjects might have been more willing to share something they consider embarrassing (not being able to unscrew a cap) to young people. "These students were totally connecting with these folks in a way our typical staff might not have gone about it," Doyle says. "They were in their homes [with test consumers in their 70s and 80s] and they were almost interacting like they were the kid next door. They were interested in getting to know the consumers as people. They were able to get some core, unarticulated emotional needs a little quicker than we would’ve otherwise."
Students are unhindered by familial duties, like children.Besides the detergent project, students have redesigned a hospital gown of breathable cotton-bamboo that drapes with dignity; a system for delivering individually labeled pills by mail — Netflix-like — to Alzheimer’s patients; and a wealth-management program that's free of jargon or confusing data. Some are in commercial development today. Obviously, Live Well didn’t invent the wheel here. Design students have been contributing to industry for years, and the trade-offs are obvious: Students get to take a stab at a real-life problem that could go commercial, universities expand the kind of training they can offer students, and companies get a fresh take on internal problems for a relatively small price (more on this later). But Live Well takes things a step further. The students in its studio classes come from a range of undergrad degree programs. Architects, fashion designers, engineers, and finance majors might be lumped together around a single project. Similarly, faculty from UC’s assorted colleges collaborate to teach the same class. Craig Vogel, executive director of Live Well, says this kind of cross-pollination is essential to training students for the careers of tomorrow. "The complexity of contemporary problems means that one discipline can’t solve them," he says. "Most companies today that are having success are working very effectively across areas of expertise." Live Well’s approach is thusly a double whammy for corporate giants like P&G. In effect, the companies get the "naïve innovation" they crave, but in a setting that more or less replicates the product-development process of the working world. They also get plenty of cheap labor. Live Well’s funding mechanism is similar to that of other university-affiliated innovation groups, like the MIT Media Lab, in that it relies on corporate partnerships. A company sponsors a class for $70,000 to $100,000 a semester and pays a membership fee of $50,000 annually for two years. The kicker? It keeps the intellectual property. "That was important," says Jeff Weemdan, P&G’s vice president for global business development. "Negotiation over payments gets in the way of a free-flow of information." (P&G got Live Well off the ground three years ago with a six-figure investment that the collaborative is paying back.) At the end of the day, the companies pay for, and own, the work. Of course what they’re shelling out is chump change relative to their multi-billion R&D budgets, which has us wondering if one of the primary draws of "naïve innovation" is a business model that is anything but naïve.