Oikawa: There is dissatisfaction in the marketplace because people watching the slimline TVs that are so popular today find it difficult to catch what speakers are saying in news programs, dramas and live sports commentaries. Bearing this in mind, we started wondering some three years ago whether it would be possible to improve TV sound using accessories. More specifically, we looked into whether we could use wireless speakers to enhance TV sound. Later, our organization was consolidated with the TV remote controller design department, so we took the opportunity to renew the discussion about our strong points with our colleagues. Our idea was to create a product that capitalized on the know-how built up through development work on remote controllers, wireless technology and acoustic technology. The resulting product idea was for a unit that combines a wireless speaker with a remote controller, thus enabling people to listen to the TV sound while controlling the TV from anywhere in their living rooms.
Once we decided the direction to take with product development, we engaged in intensive discussions about what sort of value we could offer our customers. Many other brands of wireless speakers are available, and the normal approach would be to link up with smartphones. Naturally, it is possible to build such functions into products, but as a company that has been developing TVs for many years, we wanted to create a product that enables customers to get more enjoyment out of their TV lives. As we gave more thought to the requirements of speakers designed specifically for use with TVs, we gradually came to identify our targets more clearly -- seniors who find TV sound increasingly difficult to hear, and people who watch TV while doing housework such as washing the dishes. We held numerous interviews with target users as we worked towards designing and manufacturing products that are enjoyable and comfortable to use and in tune with their respective lifestyles.
Shibuya: We conducted numerous interview surveys in and outside the company, holding focus group interviews that brought together people who fitted our target profile, including members of the general public aged 65 and over, as well as the parents of development team members. We collected feedback on scenarios where they normally found it difficult to hear what was being said when they watched TV, and on their impressions when they actually used product prototypes. We asked their opinions on both functions and design. For example, our results reflected resistance to angular designs from seniors, so we adopted the design that give the impression of softness tinged with roundness.
Moreover, if we had not listened carefully to the opinions of senior people, we may not have provided the "voice zoom" function that makes it easier to follow what announcers and others are saying. While there are other products that make it easier for seniors to hear what is being said, most of them simply boost the higher frequencies. However, there are many reasons why hearing deteriorates. More to the point, we discovered that in the case of TV, many people find it difficult to hear what people are saying when ambient sound from the surrounding environment is involved. That is why we adopted the "voice zoom" function, which boosts the spoken voice to help people to hear it more clearly. We aimed to develop speakers to enhance the simple enjoyment of television by focusing on making it easier to hear what is being said rather than on musical appreciation.
Oikawa: We also incorporated the opinions of many women, our other target users. During the development process, I personally made a point of always eliciting the opinions of female participants whenever we held meetings. In this way, male participants pushed ahead with product development while learning from the viewpoints of female participants. When we sent out invitations to participate in interview surveys, we were able to enlist the cooperation of 68 women. The number of women in our workplace is quite small, so the contributions of so many other women enabled us to dig more deeply into women's needs.
Mizobuchi: One of the ideas we adopted from these women was the need for splash proof specs. Quite often when you're doing the washing up in the kitchen, of course, you can see the TV but not hear it. So long as the speaker is OK even if it gets a little splashed, you can enjoy the TV while doing kitchen chores. There is a considerable difference between a product that must not be exposed to water, and the peace of mind and comfort that comes from a product that will be OK if it is wiped dry quickly.
Mizobuchi: While carrying out user tests when we were compiling the user manual, we did our utmost to create a structure and explanations that are easy to understand. Our objective was to enable seniors to follow the user manual and do everything themselves, from connecting and installing the transmitter to setting up the remote. We used large fonts for easier reading, and many illustrations instead of text for the explanations. We also took a creative approach to colored lettering and backgrounds, page folding and layouts, and avoiding shading behind the text to help people with poorer eyesight. Many of these enhancements reflected the results of user tests. When we first carried out installation tests with members of the general public aged 75 and older, all of them succeeded in connecting up the unit, but several got no further because they only read the front of the manual and did not realize they needed to read the back to complete the set up. It was not clear that the explanation continued on the back of the manual. We therefore devised a way to lead them to continue over to the back of the manual by the page layout design that clearly shows it is to be continued.
Shibuya: These user tests also made us alter product specs in some cases. Setting up the remote requires pressing the setting button, the power button and the relevant numbers, in that order. However, some users did not go on to the next step because they did not know what pressing these buttons meant. We therefore relocated the lamp that flashes when the remote setting button is pressed to the front of the product, where it is more visible. All of the development team members worked to create a product that prioritized ease of understanding for the user rather than ease of manufacture.
Ichimura: I had one request from the perspective of sales and marketing. I asked that the product incorporate a handle. When I envisaged scenarios where people would be watching TV while doing housework, I realized that the product would often be used in the kitchen. I also asked that everything possible be done to make the product easier to use, especially since some seniors would find it less easy to carry heavier items. I was delighted that the developers responded flexibly even though they had already reached the point of putting the finishing touches to the product.
Oikawa: Actually, we discussed the idea of a handle at the development stage, but concluded that since the product itself was small, it would be easy to carry. However, when we received this comment from the sales side, we agreed that a handle would be necessary after all when we envisaged the situation for seniors and for people who watch TV while doing their housework. Thanks to the efforts of our designers, we were able to attach a neatly designed handle to the product, thus further enhancing its marketability.
Ichimura: Since the Handy Speaker was specially designed to make our TV-viewing lives more pleasant, we drew on the results of questions on how to convey its attractions to customers included in interviews held during the development process, and reflected these in demonstrations and explanations. During in-store demonstrations held after the product launch, sales personnel and customers submitted comments such as "Unlike existing products, attention has been paid to subtle details;" "The Voice Zoom function made it much easier to hear what was said;" and "Automatic volume adjustment helps in an everyday life environment." I believe this is the result of reflecting users' opinions directly in the product planning process.
Oikawa: One thing that surprised me this time was the strong reaction to the announcement of the Handy Speaker among overseas media, even though it was only launched in Japan. I think this is precisely because Sony has continued to provide products and services to the world while accepting diversity. From now on, we will adhere to our culture of creating "edgy" products while accepting diverse opinions in order to match people's varied lifestyles.
Mizobuchi: Originally, I was not a member of the accessory design team, but I became a participant after being asked. During the development process, I often saw people from various departments suddenly gather together and start discussions. I think this project demonstrated the fun of monozukuri as everyone took a single idea and gave it shape, reminding me that this is exactly what makes working at Sony interesting.
Shibuya: Sony has long been home to many people with various idiosyncrasies who have created innovative products while speaking freely. Today, there is no change in its attitude to putting the best interests of customers first, or developing products that pursue this while exchanging views on a coequal basis irrespective of department, position or gender. And all it needs for everyone to cooperate is to ask. I was reminded once again that this is one of the great things about Sony.
Ichimura: I was impressed not only by the cooperation between departments but also by the ability of the business divisions and sales companies to work together as coequals. The most important things are the human relationships that allow coequal discussions on what sort of values to propose to customers and how to deliver products to them, and the organization-wide lateral linkage. I believe one of Sony's strengths is the ability to cooperate in working towards objectives without paying much attention to organizational barriers.