CEresearchNRW: Users:inside at the center of sustainable product development

Friederike von Unruh vom Prosperkolleg Team.

by Friederike v. Unruh

The last web seminar in 2020 was held under the motto “Mind the User – User:inside centricity as a success factor in sustainable product and service innovations”. The event began with a presentation on the topic of “Users:inside at the center of sustainable product and service innovations” by Daniela Kattwinkel and Dr. Michael Herzog (both Ruhr University Bochum).

Daniela Kattwinkel first presented the “EcoING” project launched in 2018 by the Bochum Chair of Product Development. The aim of the project is to develop an Ecodesign learning factory for university engineering education, which is to be used for innovative courses and further training in the context of ecological product development. She then distinguished the central goals of classic product development, such as economic efficiency, functionality, aesthetics and safety, from ecodesign and sustainable design. Ecodesign has an ecological dimension in addition to the factors of classic product development, while sustainable design addresses social and ethical aspects even more comprehensively. In general, product development is of great importance, as it is here that the environmental impact of a product is determined. However, the developer’s options for action depend on the availability of information about further lifecycle phases. For many technical products in particular, the use phase is the phase in which most environmental impacts are caused. This raises the question of how to specifically influence the processes of the use phase in product development.

Kattwinkel elaborated on the general model of the user-product system[1]. According to Wiese et al. (2004), the first step is to determine the system in which the nonenvironmental behavior arises. This is usually not only due to the users:inside, the product or the task, but to a “lack of fit of the components”. Of particular importance are the usage problems that occur between user:in and product.

Using the example of a washing machine, she showed that users are ecologically negligent due to ignorance and, for example, dose the amount of detergent significantly too high or select a washing temperature that is much too high. All decisions made by the users have an impact on the environmental effects of the product or system. However, users often do not know how to operate a product in an environmentally friendly way. In a study conducted by Kattwinkel, more than 70 influencing factors were identified that affect environmental impacts during use[2]. Factors such as age, environmental motivation or qualification of the users, the usage behavior (e.g. frequency, duration, duration of use) or the specific usage behavior for a product (e.g. use of functions or settings) were presented here.

Nowadays there are many different methods and tools from research and practice to analyze, quantify or reduce the environmental impacts of products (e.g. Life Cycle Assessment, Environmental FMEA, MET-Matrix, different Eco-Design principles). However, these are not yet an intrinsic part of product development in companies and are not yet being used across the board. Some practical examples show how sustainable concepts can be implemented in products in order to reduce the environmental impact during use. One example is the i-Dos automatic dosing system for washing machines from Siemens[3], which uses intelligent sensors to detect both the type of textile, load quantity and the degree of soiling of the laundry in order to precisely determine the correct amount of detergent and water. Other strategies that can lead to a reduction in misuse and thus to a reduction in the environmental impact of use include feedback mechanisms in the product that indicate to the user(s) the consumption of energy or resources, thereby highlighting the environmental impact of the choices made in use. When implementing such strategies, the question is always whether reducing the environmental impacts in the use phase also reduces the environmental impacts of the product over its entire life cycle. For example, the use of sensors can lead to increased impacts in manufacturing or recycling.

After the presentation, there was a virtual panel discussion. On the podium, the moderators Svenja Grauel (Project Manager Prosperkolleg) and Paul Szabo-Müller (Head of Qualification Needs Prosperkolleg) welcomed Jessica Buchta (Founder Reusable Packaging) and Julius Piwowar (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy) as well as the two speakers.

Julius Piwowar, research associate in the Production and Consumption Department, reported on his experiences at the Wuppertal Institute. There, the practical perspective on products plays an important role. For this purpose, Living Lab research is conducted and products are tested for acceptance and usability. When asked if it should only be incremental improvements or if socio-cultural change must take place, the answer was that it was mainly about visionary concepts. The users:inside cannot necessarily imagine future scenarios. People at that time wanted a faster horse, not a faster car.

Piwowar went on to report that user:inside centricity actually originated in software development. Prototypes can be easily tested there. Of course, it is significantly more difficult to transfer these agile approaches to the physical world. Another problem is the acquisition of users. It is even more difficult with seasonal products such as heaters.

Jessica Buchta reported on the difficulties of developing a returnable packaging system for online retail. The construction of a multi-way system requires the consideration of all user:ins in it. Starting with online retailers, who use the packaging in logistics, to CEP service providers, who transport it, to the end consumers, who receive the packaging and bring it to a drop-off point. All users must be taken into account. Each of them has different requirements and wishes, which have to be combined with each other. That’s why it’s important to empathize with different perspectives. The task of the developer is to listen carefully, because the customer often has little innovative power and motivation to develop on his own. A common problem with more environmentally friendly solutions is that a change in behavior must take place among end consumers, so that, for example, the shipping packaging is not disposed of in the trash as usual after use, but is returned so that it can be recycled. Interaction with end-users and good community management are important for the return of shipping packaging. Ideally, reusable packaging should always be filled or have a high utilization rate, which makes sense for shipping customers’ own products or markets with high returns. The second-hand market will continue to gain importance in the future, but so will swapping, renting and sharing, which is why this scenario is not unrealistic.

[1] Wiese, B. S., Sauer, J., Rüttinger, B. (2004). Environmentally sound product development: concepts, findings and perspectives of an interdisciplinary research project. Environmental Psychology, 5 (1), 52-68.

[2] Cf. Kattwinkel, D., Herzog, M., Neumann, M. and Bender, B. (2017). Environmental impacts during product usage: identification and categorization of influencing factors. In 21st International Conference on Engineering Design (ICED17): Vancouver, Canada, 21-25 August 2017, pp. 199-208.

[3] Siemens: https://www.siemens-home.bsh-group.com/de/produkte/waeschepflege/idos