On Planes, Offices and the Outdoors With Plantronics HeadphonesYou 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?
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.
How do you take consumer feedback into account when you’re designing?
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?
Where do you get inspiration for new headphone designs from?
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?
What’s one thing you wanted to do design-wise but weren’t able to because it negatively affected performance?
When you look across the headphone space, where does this headphone fit?
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
What specific features make your product easy to use? How about to clean?