Case Studies

Insight for Innovation ®

Case Studies are published articles written by Ken Miller that address opportunities for innovation in a specific category. They involve primary research, analysis and concept development summarized in a brief and readable format.

Coming Clean With the Spray Bottle

Brand Packaging Magazine: October 1, 2007 by Ken Miller


Download PDF of this case study

No product delivery system has transformed the household cleaning ritual quite like the trigger sprayer.  Enduring lifestyle shifts first emerged decades ago, leaving us less time to clean, and placing cleaning lower on the priority ladder.  The trigger sprayer promised consumers adequate cleaning power, without the guilt associated with less time to clean.

Since its introduction, the trigger spray delivery system has been adopted for more and more surfaces and cleaning occasions.  All-purpose cleaning formulas put demands on the package structure that the simple days of glass cleaning did not.  While there have been ergonomic improvements, I don’t think anyone has truly reevaluated the performance of the trigger spray bottle in light of its greatly expanded use.

How do trigger sprayers work for consumers given the way they clean today?  Where in the usage cycle are there “friction points” that could eliminate inconvenience or discomfort?  Where are there opportunities to delight consumers with unexpected benefits?

In preparation for writing this column, I conducted ethnographic research with a large handful of recruited target users in actual kitchen and bath cleaning occasions.  I witnessed how people store, handle, transport and use trigger sprayers.  And, I showed consumers examples in and out of the cleaning category for their feedback.  The role of this column is to illustrate that every category, no matter how mature and taken for granted, has a potential innovation story to tell.  Here’s the trigger sprayer innovation story.

If you’ve ever purchased trigger spray cleaners, you know that there’s a lot going on at the point of sale.  And, not very much.  Most rely on product color shown through translucent bottles to convey efficacy and purpose.  Interestingly, however, virtually none differentiate on apparent form, promised functionality or ergonomics.  I say “virtually” because a few, such as Method, attempt to deviate from the norm.  Unfortunately, consumers insist that this break from the category hurts the product’s chances.   They said things like: “Maybe soda?  What the heck is it doing in the cleaning department?”  Now, that doesn’t mean that Method isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing for the folks it’s targeting.  It just means that most of these consumers didn’t get it.

While there’s not a lot of conspicuous structural variation on the shelf, that’s not to say that ergonomics and usability have been ignored.  Manufacturers have to accommodate infinite hand sizes, grip preferences and usage dynamics.  It looks to me as if they have made some very deliberate and necessary tradeoffs in designing their trigger sprayer units.

So, how can we provide direction for improving an iconic package structure such as the trigger sprayer when it must serve such a wide range of users and uses?  Well, I’ll argue two points:

  • The design strategy for the trigger sprayer has not kept up with its ubiquitous use across multiple surfaces in multiple settings.  And, the advent of the “all-purpose” cleaner has exacerbated this issue by expecting one bottle to perform well in all situations.
  • While there may be some true “friction points” to be fixed, the real opportunity may be in delighting the consumer through a usage experience that delivers beyond her expectations.

Admittedly, the women I observed say there’s nothing wrong with trigger spray bottles.  Of course.  But when I watched as the bottles were handled throughout the experience cycle, from storage through disposal, there are evident opportunities for innovation.  Let’s uncover them as we dissect elements of the experience cycle across kitchen and bath cleaning occasions.

The Storage Sinkhole

Granted, managing and organizing a multi-person household (as all of these were) is tough work.  And a good look under the sink (kitchen and bath) where trigger spray products are primarily stored bears this out.  Cleaning and other products fall into complete co-mingled disarray in the deep recesses of this cabinet. This is particularly interesting, because all the other storage locations and surfaces around the home shows an almost compulsive urge to organize, label and contain.  So what’s going on under the sink?

spray-3The cabinet below the sink is a catch-all for many kinds of cleaning and non-cleaning products in various uncooperative forms.  Cleaning rags sit on top of spray bottles.  Paper towel rolls meander.  Spray cans, sponges, tools and even food products all vie for the same real estate.  As for the trigger spray bottles, their bulbous, inefficient forms don’t help matters.  Much under-sink terrain is marked by wall-to-wall underbrush, with trigger heads sprouting like treetops above the fray.  These women count on the color of the spray head standing above the crowd to identify the product.

Then, they go in for the deep dive.  Even though the spray heads are color coded, there’s still some trial and error, as the user picks up and drops them a few times until the right ones are located.  See any opportunities so far?

Some of these women place duplicate products in locations where they are used.  But others still transport a collection of cleaning paraphernalia from central storage to the in-use location.  It is clear that for those who transport products around the home that they could use some help in managing multiple bottles along with other cleaning supplies.  For example, women had great things to say about the new Lysol Food Sanitizer spray bottle.  Not as a cleaner, mind you (it isn’t one), but it has a very thin profile, right for easy storage and multiple-bottle, one-handed transport.   Some even said that a bottle with that profile may be stored in multiple locations.  Read that to mean multiple purchases and faster use-up rates.

Almost every user leaves the nozzle on the “spray” setting.  It’s hardly ever rotated to “off”, and almost never used on “stream”, where that’s an option.  Many weren’t clear on how to switch the nozzle, and most couldn’t see it.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a need to change how the product is delivered depending on the application.

  • What kinds of innovation opportunities might surface from the storage and set-up steps we’ve just discussed?
  • How can we make the spray bottle more visible, identifiable and accessible under the sink?
  • What bottle forms can provide an efficient footprint with organization side-benefits?
  • How can we assist in the transport of multiple spray bottles, given the trip includes other uncooperative tools such as rags, brushes and paper towel rolls?  And how might we “integrate” all these products to streamline both storage and transport?
  • Would nozzle settings that are easier to read and adjust improve product performance or safety?  Could “spray”, “stream” and “off” settings be changed to better reflect true in-use requirements?

Each of these points can be translated into leverageable Innovation Platforms to focus, guide and inspire concept development.  However, once we’ve surfaced additional opportunities elsewhere in the experience cycle, we’ll come back to set some priorities.

Scene of the Clean

I observed cleaning occasions in both the kitchen and bath.  When it comes to trigger spray use, the kitchen can be considered more of a horizontal surface cleaning environment, while the bath is more of a vertical surface environment.

carryingThis is important, because a trigger spray bottle interacts differently with the hand depending on the type of surface to be cleaned.  And different trigger/grip configurations seem more conducive to each.  Some bottles ask the user to carry the weight on the back of the hand, via a protruding flange in the back of the spray head.  Others expect the bulk of the weight to be carried in the grip, where the fingers and palm meet the bottle neck.

In spraying a horizontal surface such as a kitchen counter, the nozzle must pivot down, and the weight of the bottle must be swung like a pendulum up and away to achieve this angle.  I found that weight on the back of the hand via the flange allows the fingers more freedom to pull the bottle back and point the bottle down without straining the wrist.

In spraying a vertical surface such as a shower stall in the bathroom, the opposite seems to be true. Pointing the nozzle upward requires pressure on the palm of the hand against the rear neck of the bottle.  A few users appreciated the texture and contours on the back of some bottle necks.  Carrying the weight on the gripping fingers via deep contours in the forward neck seems to facilitate this best.

However, this configuration makes spraying a horizontal surface more difficult, because fingers must carry and swing the weight, as well as activate the trigger.  And, in spraying a vertical surface, asking the weight to be placed on the back of the hand appears less effective, since the palm is best suited to swing the bottle upward.

Why is any of this important?  Because a key learning is that as a given trigger sprayer configuration takes on more locations, tasks and surfaces, it may not perform optimally in each.  This awareness is compounded by a few other situational differences regarding the spray action itself.

In the kitchen, it seems as if complete coverage is not critical.  Product is sprayed out here and there, and the paper towel (or rarely a rag) is used to spread the cleaner across the surface.  Multiple trigger pumps are required, and a tilted wrist can make this tiresome.  But, more interesting are the short trigger strokes used to nail a nasty spot with dedicated cleaner, to get into tight spots, or to avoid spots that shouldn’t be sprayed (wood, outlets, etc.).  Need for control is the insight here.

In the bathroom, complete coverage is mission-critical.  Large vertical surfaces require exhaustive pumping.  Full coverage is important, because higher surfaces may never be scrubbed, and contact with the cleaner may be all the cleaning power they ever get.  Also, some users count on gravity to pull the cleaner down the wall, cleaning as it goes.  Foams do a nice job of signaling coverage.  All this means lots of trigger action, and the need to disperse product both close-in and at a distance.

Multiple materials in the bathroom create additional challenges.  Users don’t want spray cleaners to touch wallpaper or other finishes.  Or, they need to scrub tricky objects like door tracks, handles, towel bars and faucets.  What do they do?  They spray the rag or towel, rather than the object.  That way, the cleaner goes exactly where it’s needed.

A few more words about individual user differences.  Some users keep two fingers on the trigger, while others only one.  This seems to depend on several factors, including hand size, dispersion and depth of the finger contours on the neck, where on the neck and trigger head the hand rests, what kind of surface, etc.  I don’t want to get in any deeper on ergonomics, but these issues support the contention that manufacturers have their hands full dealing with the vast differences in anatomy and practice among human beings.

  • What kind of innovation opportunities might surface from the cleaning behavior I witnessed?
  • How can trigger spray bottle configurations more comfortably address both vertical and horizontal surfaces?  Perhaps gripping and weight-bearing positions could be more flexible, or even adjustable.
  • How about unique trigger sprayer structures for kitchen and bath?  Maybe this is an easier way for consumers to think about vertical vs. horizontal cleaning.
  • Could simple adjustments to the spray via the trigger allow more control across varying surfaces?  These might include close in spot treatment, total vs. intermittent coverage, rag spraying, reaching high spots, avoiding nearby surfaces, etc.  And what can be done about the incessant and tiresome pumping?

Focus on what Matters

Let me remind you that this article is not intended as an in-depth expose of all things wrong with trigger spray bottles.  Rather, it’s an attempt to illustrate one way of exploring and defining a package innovation opportunity of any kind.  That said, how might we set some priorities among the several potential Innovation Platforms we’ve identified?  Let’s evaluate them along two dimensions:
How highly would consumers value the solutions to the above opportunities?  Or, how critical is the need represented by each?
How large is the perceptual and/or functional gap represented by each opportunity?  Meaning, how well do existing products in the market perform against the opportunities?

Typically, the team would work together to rank the key insights by expected consumer value, and then determine how well each of them are addressed by existing products.  Those insights that are high on both value and show large performance gaps would become the most urgent Innovation Platforms.

Coming out of this work, I would argue that there are three solid Innovation Platforms worth pursuing in concept development:

  • Consider improving storage access and handling of the bottles prior to use.  Make them easy to find, easy to grab and easy to transport along with other cleaning supplies.
  • Explore an “adjustable” gripping and spraying configuration that is comfortable for the multitude of locations and surfaces they are used for today.
  • Investigate simple, intuitive “on-the-fly” spray adjustments to accommodate various surface requirements throughout the household.

I know what you are thinking.  What about cost?  What about manufacturing constraints?  As part of any innovation methodology, I would urge the team to collect cross-functional information on internal capabilities and constraints prior to launching into concept development.  This structured and deliberate exercise will establish parameters for the project, and ensure that proposed concepts are both on-strategy and actionable.

Successful innovation takes place when a number of things happen.  Perhaps most importantly, however, the chosen innovation methodology must do its job in focusing, inspiring and guiding concept development.  In this way, all team members can reach consensus on what’s truly important to consumers, and how that insight can be molded into benefits that transform the usage experience.  Talk about an effective “trigger” for innovation!