The Future of Oral Care

Credit to  David Goehring  for the photo, titled "Welcomer."  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Credit to David Goehring for the photo, titled "Welcomer."  Used under the Creative Commons license.

I feel a bit like a dog that's finally caught the car he was chasing.  

It all started when I was listening to Matthias Wagner discuss product management and design.  He was talking about how and why he first built the site that would become CHANGEMKRS.  It was a digital meditation, a search for daily inspiration.  He went on to encourage his audience to practice if they hoped to become better product managers: take the time to think critically about the objects and applications that we interact with each day.  Decompiling Design was the natural and inevitable confluence of his admonishment and the idea behind CHANGEMKRS.  I registered the domain hours after I heard Matthias speak and started thinking about which product I would break down first.

Then it hit me: I had caught the car, but now I had no idea what to do with it.

I didn't know where to begin in breaking down a product.  How should I structure my weekly reflections to maximize learning?  Which issues in product design matter most?  Which product in my life would lend itself to examination and thereby produce useful insights?

And those were just the process questions.  There were other, more personal questions that began to flood my mind.  What if I make a fool of myself?  What if I come off as naive, my observations trite?  A prospective employer might read this one day.  What if I make an embarrassing spelling/grammar mistake (right on cue - I just misspelled "embarrassing", forgetting there were two R's)?  What if I prove to be a terrible writer?

I fretted several days away, even as I recognized that I was committing a classic blunder:  worrying so much about how the race would be won that I never got off the starting blocks.  I needed to just dive in, take a page from the Lean Startup handbook: put something out there and iterate.

One positive did emerge from my procrastination: I stumbled upon Wells Riley's "Startups, This is How Design Works."  I took Wells' advice and queued up the documentary "Objectified" on Netflix.  It turned out to be a great starting point for Decompiling Design.

The film is an examination of industrial and interactive design.  Like some other reviewers, I found that it didn't maintain a single, clear point of view; rather, it seemed to be more a survey of the disciplines and their importance in our daily lives.  Even so, I found the documentary compelling.

One moment in particular resonated with me.  A group of IDEO designers were considering the toothbrush and how it might be reenvisioned.  One suggested that the question wasn't, "What is the new toothbrush?"  Rather, the question was, "what is the future of oral care?"

Observations like these are critical to innovation, to creating truly novel solutions to long-standing problems.  It's easy to get trapped into thinking the toothbrush was designed to brush our teeth and not recognize that what we're really concerned about is oral health (and its concurrent effect on our overall health).  The former mindset leads to the design of a better toothbrush, creating a "sustaining innovation" in Clayton Christensen's parlance.  The latter potentially leads to entirely new, disruptive innovations, discarding the idea of the toothbrush altogether.  But it can be difficult to recognize the more general problem when a single solution has reigned supreme for so long.

According to Wikipedia, the oldest bristled toothbrush ever discovered dates to 619 - 907 AD.  It appears to have evolved from the chew stick, an invention that can be traced back as far as 3500 BC.  Despite all of our technical advances, we continue to care for our mouths with a device that is, at best, over 1000 years old.

I can understand the enduring appeal of the manual toothbrush.  It's cheap, light and portable.  It requires little more than water to provide basic functionality, and it gets the job done.  Electric toothbrushes are often marketed as a more effective solution for maintaining oral health, but they've never been able to establish a strong value proposition when compared to the price/effectiveness of manual toothbrushes.  Setting aside the business case for electric toothbrushes, they strike me as more evolutionary than revolutionary when it comes to oral care, particularly when examined in the context of modern technology.  Is the best we can do an electric, automated version of a 1000 year old invention?

In Objectified, Marc Newson (now with Apple) explains why he is drawn to product design.  "I want to have things that don't exist," he says.  Every so often we need to look at the world and ask ourselves whether the assumptions and circumstances that led to the development of a product are still true today and, if not, how we might solve the problem at the core of that product differently using modern technology.  The toothbrush was a function of its time: a low tech, low cost, portable and disposable solution.  Today, overarching concerns about consumer waste might push us toward an alternative solution (estimates suggest we'll each use over 300 toothbrushes over the course of our lives).  We get there not by focusing on what a new toothbrush should look like, but on what the future of oral care should be.

So what?  Though we're talking about toothbrushes, you can take the same approach to other products and industries.  Today's taxi services are not all that different from their counterparts from the 1950s (or 1850s for that matter).  The folks at Uber realized that advances in telecommunications technologies created an opportunity to provide a better experience.  They also recognized that in solving some of the problems around taxis, they were solving a broader problem with logistics and delivery services.  I'm also reminded of how answering machines were replaced not by another voice product but by SMS.  Questioning what a new answering machine would look like led to voicemail, but the better question might have been, "What is the future of asynchronous communication?"

That leaves the question, which products/industries are ripe for this type of thinking/innovation?