How to Design Better Retail Point-of-Purchase Displays

A small group of students at Stanford University were challenged to design a product that could save the lives of millions of newborns in the poorest parts of the world. The students were participants in a popular class called “Design for Extreme Affordability.” Their assignment was to research and design a low-cost infant incubator that could make a meaningful impact on the global infant mortality problem.

The students ultimately developed the award-winning Embrace Infant Warmer, a user-friendly medical product that can keep an infant warm for up to 4 hours and costs less than 1% of a traditional baby incubator.

Portable Baby Incubator Stanford
Photo Courtesy Embrace

As designers and manufacturers of POP displays and retail store fixtures, what can we learn about the design process the students used to enable us to create more innovative and cost-effective merchandising displays?

The students used a process known as design thinking. Some of the key elements of the design thinking process include the following:

  • Conduct Thorough Research- The students began the project by conducting thorough research on the problem of infant mortality in developing countries. They discovered that each year about 15 million premature and low-birth-weight babies are born. A million of them die on the day of their birth. Furthermore, they learned that the biggest preventable cause of death was hypothermia. They found that existing solutions to address the problem of hypothermia such as traditional incubators were expensive- as much as $20,000.
  • Empathize with the End User- When the students conducted field research in developing countries they noticed that many of the expensive incubators in hospitals were empty and had low utilization rates. They learned that most of the babies were born in surrounding villages, and the care was being given at the mother’s home, not the hospital. By understanding the needs of the mother, the students gained a key insight: developing an inexpensive, portable, and user friendly incubator would have a far greater impact than a better hospital-based mousetrap.
  • Rapid Prototyping- With the understanding that their key customer was the mother and not the hospital, the students engaged in 4 or 5 rounds of rapid prototyping, ultimately creating a tiny sleeping bag with a paraffin-based pouch that could provide consistent warmth to an infant after it was heated.
  • Field Testing- Armed with a working prototype, the students headed out to rural villages in India to field test their product with real users. They wanted to understand how mothers would react to their product and what factors would lead to them accepting or rejecting the product. They discovered, for example, that mothers were reluctant to heat the pouch to the ideal temperature when the thermometer showed a numerical reading. That insight led them to redesign the temperature gauge to read “OK” when the pouch was ready.
  • Continued Field Research and Product Development- The core team of students spent the next 2 years traveling in India, talking to mothers, midwives, nurses, and doctors. They understood that great design requires being close to the customer. They continued to iterate the design based on user feedback.

The design thinking process used by the students who created the Embrace Infant Warmer can be applied to the process of creating any Point-of-Purchase display. Applying the key elements of this process will likely lead to more innovative and cost-effective retail displays.

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