Toothbrushing: you do it twice a day, every day, from the time you’re a little kid. It’s mundane, but it’s also incredibly important, for both health and aesthetic reasons. Philips Sonicare has created a power toothbrush that uses advanced technology to give you a deep clean unlike a traditional toothbrush, and looks beautiful in your bathroom. So how do they do it? We went to the Philips Sonicare Innovation and Design office in Washington state to get a behind-the-scenes look at the tech behind the brush.
Philips Sonicare began in 1987 as GEMTech. Engineers spent years researching and making prototypes until finally introducing the Sonicare toothbrush in November 1992. Now, Philips Sonicare is crucial to the Seattle tech landscape, and its Innovation and Design facility is the heart of its operation.
The design of the toothbrush was essential to the entire Philips Sonicare team. The biggest challenge the design department faces is turning toothbrushing into a sexy subject. The design of the product, according to Bart Massee, Philips Sonicare’s Creative Director, helps bring the consumer from “chore to choice.” But how does that all happen? How does high-quality engineering combine with sleek design to create a truly unique product?
Senior Design Director Raymond Wong explains that one of their goals in designing the brush is to “transform our daily oral healthcare routine into a more pleasurable experience, with a timeless design that has strong emotional appeal.” He wants the toothbrush to be “something you would not be ashamed to leave out when you have guests over.” So the design team took inspiration from high-end fashion accessories and luxury automotive brands. “The exterior quality should live up to the tremendous research and engineering effort behind the product.”
The design department has to consider every situation that the product may end up in, every way it may be used, and how different consumers will interact with it. They factor in every possibility, down to whether the toothbrush will be standing up or lying down. The design team also created accessories to improve the user experience beyond brushing, such as a charging travel case and a home charging station, with an easy-to-clean glass cup that charges the handle through induction.
Color is another important part of the design. Philips Sonicare took a risk and broke from the industry norm to introduce a black version of the DiamondClean. This design is more masculine and modern, and generated a lot of excitement. Then, consumers in Japan wanted pink, so the design team came up with a unique pink color that has proven appealing to a wide age range. The newest color, available in mid-July, is a deep purple with a metallic sheen — a glamorous shade with mystique that was inspired by the night sky.
Such great design must, of course, also be accompanied by high functionality. Right down the hall from I&D is the quality department, where Philips Sonicare does all of their testing. From “failure testing” to trying the brushes on every possible kind of mouth (or models of them, at least), the testing facility puts the toothbrushes up against everyday stresses — and some not-so-everyday ones — with the help of a friendly robot named Robbi (see the picture above).
The Innovation and Development department utilizes what they call bouncing ball process. They consider consumers co-developers, and frequently change designs and processes based on user feedback. With the bouncing ball process, technical feasibility, consumer experience, and design come together in a continuous iterative approach, with the goal of finding the perfect match of state-of-the-art technology and consumer experience. After design iterations and consumer experiential testing is over, the consumers perform functional evaluations (think one day plaque removal, six week plaque removal, gingivitis reduction, and competitive brand testing).
As a part the bouncing ball process, Robbi is also used to test the products. Robbi uses IVAP, which stands for In-Vitro Analysis Perfected. With this process the engineers can practice on any type of mouth (straight teeth, crooked teeth, u-shaped, v-shaped), any size, any brushing style (heavy pressure, “sleepy brusher”), and can measure the effectiveness of the Philips Sonicare brush vs manual brushing or competitors powered toothbrushes.
Consumer feedback is a key factor in the design process at Philips Sonicare. Evaluations are conducted in the Product Research Center (PRC) an outbuilding at the Philips campus that looks exactly like a dentist office with a waiting room and reception desk.
Research participants come to this facility to provide their thoughts and feelings on product prototypes in all stages of development. It also gives dental professionals a chance to give their feedback, which directly affects the final product experience and design.
The PRC has six testing rooms with one-way mirrors. These can be used to test archetypes, experiences, and design using various methodologies which may include difference testing or preference testing. In 2014, 2000–2500 people visited the PRC to evaluate products. The final question always asked by researchers was how satisfied the participant was overall with the product.
Together, the Innovation & Design, Product Research Center, and Quality departments create the power toothbrushes we may take for granted. A lot goes into keeping your pearly whites, well, pearly, and the people at Philips Sonicare are dedicated to making sure they’re giving you the best, and most pleasurable, brushing experience possible. There’s a lot of science behind a bright smile. For more information on Philips Sonicare’s range of power toothbrushes, head here.
Images by Ryan Russell.