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On Planes, Offices and the Outdoors With Plantronics Headphones

You can cancel noise and still be aware of your surroundings.

In situations where you want to mostly cancel noise—potentially threatening noises aside—Plantronics wants to be your eyes and ears. The company has nearly seven decades of history in developing consumer electronics and adapting to the latest technology and trends, whether it's active noise cancellation or athleisure. By capitalizing on the desires of people who travel often or exercise outdoors, Plantronics has gained an edge by evolving its headphone line, including the Backbeat Pro 2 and Backbeat Fit. Quiddity talked with Plantronics’ Greg Miller, director of portfolio business management, about the Wall of Ears, the “brand that starts with a B,” and carving out a niche.

When you talk about the design of your headphones, what’s the first design feature you mention and why?
I guess it depends on the product. We spend a lot of time on front end definition, taking an outside-in approach to designing and developing a product. That's focusing on consumer pain points and needs and the problems we want to solve. A lot of companies are inside-out driven; they're often presenting solutions but not knowing the problem that they want to solve.

For example, with the Backbeat Pro 2, we saw that active noise cancellation is becoming more of a household name, whereas with Bluetooth, for years, you had to educate the market. Active noise cancellation has been over time really only purchased by the mobile professional, the business traveler who purchase that brand that starts with a B, and spends $399 on the product. We saw an opportunity to bring a super feature-rich product with active noise cancellation to the masses, really democratizing it at a $199 price point. That’s quite a delta compared to some of the other major players.

Mobile professionals are on a lot of planes. We wanted to make sure this product had 24 hours of listening, that someone could travel around the globe without having to charge. And ensuring it's comfortable to wear during that period of time. An ear is like a fingerprint. Everyone's is different. We have databases of thousands and thousands of ears. We have a wall of ears where we'll take unique ear molds and make sure our products fit within the 99 percentile.

Shifting to Backbeat Fit, we found the most common exercises for people listening to music or media are walking or running. The majority of that is outdoors. On the Backbeat Fit, we have a totally open ear design. Knowing these people are working out outside, we wanted to give them the ability to be aware of their surroundings while working out. You want to be aware of cars, or if you are running in Central Park, you want to know a dog is coming up on you. You want the ability to enjoy your media and still be aware of your surroundings.

"We saw an opportunity to bring a super feature-rich product with active noise cancellation to the masses, really democratizing it at a $199 price point."

How do you take consumer feedback into account when you’re designing?
I break it into evolution and revolution. When it's an evolution of a product that we’re going to replace with a new generation, we count on reviews, media reports. We wouldn’t be doing our job in product management and design if we weren't aware of areas that we can improve upon. We have to take into account emerging technologies that might better help solve a consumer pain point. As people get charging anxiety, we’re always looking to improve upon our power management.

From a revolution standpoint, that's understanding the consumer pain points through qualitative and quantitative research. I love focus groups as much as one-on-ones. We do ethnographic research: I bought a one-way ticket from SFO to LAX so I could get through security, and I spent eight hours hanging at the gates taking pictures of people using technology products and headphones. I'll go sit on a park bench at a mall and ask people to use a pair of headphones. We’re looking for those big, hairy problems customers might have.

Have consumers asked for features that you as a designer know aren't realistic?
You'd be blown away by the amount of things that come into our patent committee or asked through social media. There are a lot of anxious consumers who get power anxiety. We've had people ask about energy harvesting, which I think will come over time. (Then) there’s that kind of kinetics: as you're wearing a sport headphone, you're working out and it's constantly recharging. We also hear things around sonar, or thinking about our open-ear interface on our product. You're working out, you're running— what if you were also getting pings, to know if someone was coming up alongside you? These things might be a few years out, but they are helping us evolve our story.

Where do you get inspiration for new headphone designs from?
We do a lot of trend analysis. We have (around 25) designers who come from so many different backgrounds, whether it's Kohler home appliance or Nokia phones, Indian motorcycles to BMW, so all kinds of walks of life. They have this inspiration from other products or industries they've been in. We have a dedicated guy who’s director of materials and finishes. We have a polymer scientist who helps him make those finishes a reality in a consumer product.

We subscribe to WGSN (trend forecasting), so we can look at big fashion trends. What's happening on fashion fits into consumer electronics. One of the biggest trends we've capitalized on is athleisure, looking at what some of the active lifestyle brands are doing, whether it's Nike or Adidas, making these products for sports that also can be part of your daily life.

We look at urban trends, how people are wearing headphones. If you look at the Backbeat Pro 2, it's very “streetable.” You can wear it around your neck in a transition base. The Pro was one of the first products to have this feature called open microphone. If you have your headphones on, and you want to hear the train conductor or eavesdrop on your neighbor, you can pause your music and listen. This inspiration was from being on plane and where a flight attendant is talking to you, and you don’t want to remove your headphones. It's come into the office space too.

How do you balance aesthetic choices with performance?
We start with a product requirements document. Often we have a cost target we have to hit—we need to make money —and the first iteration of a product design often comes in over cost. Given the designer, it's going to be carbon, it's going to be all the highest-end materials and finishes and then what happens if you have to make tradeoffs. You may go from a soft touch finish to a painted finish, but we don't want to make tradeoffs because we found in our research that design plays a very important part in consumer decisions. Often we’ll have to make tradeoffs, but we won't scale it back so far that it has implications on the overall design of the product. There's always the highest end—leathers, paints and finishes—that you can use. But there's a happy medium you can meet that still gives is the highest end look and feel without breaking the bank.

What’s one thing you wanted to do design-wise but weren’t able to because it negatively affected performance?
One thing we actively chose not to do, to date, was to integrate a heart rate monitor into one of our sport products. At this point, the traditional heart rate monitoring devices have always been chest straps. But a lot of that capability is moving to smartwatches. We built prototypes around headphones with a heart rate monitor. It increases the cost significantly, but it also increases the size. If you look at some of the products out there that have a heart rate monitor built into the headphone, they are big blocks in the ears that will affect human factors: comfort, fit and stability. Looking at the market data, that's not a space we’re going to play in at this point in time. We see that all moving into the watches at this point.

When you look across the headphone space, where does this headphone fit?
The market is dominated by a few brands: Apple and Beats, they've got a lionshare. Then you have Bose of the world, that effectively created active noise cancellation. Those are much larger companies than Plantronics. We’re very good at what we do. We’re the market leader on the enterprise side. We’ll never invest from a marketing standpoint at the same level as those other companies, so we look for meaningful niches where we can be successful.

The Backbeat Fit an example. We dominated in that space with the open-ear interface and (by) positioning the product around outdoor exercise, with people who want to be aware of their surrounding. On the (Backbeat) Pro, we wanted to take a technology that was not approachable for the masses but was becoming more aware, democratizing that. We’re the top brand in France in this space. What we’re finding is people care about noise canceling more than just on the airplane. We have an open office environment—the spirit around it is—l don't want to collaborate on all day long and i want to focus, it's a noisy world out there, right? I can work wherever i may be bu tthers noise anywhere. We really made it approachable with a super, feature rich product that's as competitive but a couple hundred dollars less expensive.

"We’ll never invest from a marketing standpoint at the same level as those other companies, so we look for meaningful niches where we can be successful."

What specific features make your product easy to use? How about to clean?
With the Backbeat Fit, it's fully waterproof. It can withstand three meters of water for 30 minutes. You (can) just wash it off. All of our products, when you turn them on for first time, go into pairing mode. Those of us who are super close to these products know pairing sequences. First-time buyers, it might be a new experience for them. We don't overload it with a lot of buttons. What are the important features a user needs? The volume up and down, the pause and the call/ answer are really table stakes on the product.

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