In the early 1980’s Dr. David Thornburg, professor of Design at Stanford University, came up with a concept which he called Zero Mass Design. He proposed categorizing products along two axes. The x-axis ranged from “simplicity” to “complexity” (these were qualitative assessments), and the y-axis charted functionality. Thornburg proposed a “U-shaped” curve. He said that on one side of the “U”, as things became more complex, they became more functional –- in other words more features could be engineered into them. But his real insight was that as things became simpler, they could also become more functional. Something simple could be used in ways far beyond its intended use (think of the paper clip or a tennis ball). This profound insight is not only a key to good design but can also serve as a business model. The drive toward SIMPLICITY AND UBIQUITY has many interesting consequences.

Quick. Think of ten things you can do with a tennis ball besides play tennis.

To name a few I’ve seen: cut it in half and use it as a slider for a walker; cut it in half for soft but easily grip-able handles; suspend it from a string as a marker for pulling your car into your garage (it’s time to stop when the tennis ball brushes against your windshield); cut it in half and use it as a spring or shock absorber; play baseball with it; dip it in paint to make patterns on canvass for a painting; etc, etc.

None of these uses were the intended use of the inventor or manufacturer. The product’s simplicity belies its incredible functionality.

My former business, the Texwipe Company, manufactured cleaning cloths (called wipers) for ultra-clean manufacturing environments such as those found in semiconductor or pharmaceutical manufacturing. The array of unintended uses was mind-boggling. Our products were designed to be used to clean surfaces that needed to be kept absolutely free of any type of microscopic contamination. They were physically simple products (woven or knit cut pieces of cloth that were processed in a way to make them contamination-free) and were typically packaged in bags of 100 or 150.

The simplicity of the product led to uses that we could have never imagined. Technicians working on machinery would tape handfuls of the wipers around their knees to use as knee-pads as they were kneeling down to fix a machine. The product was used as packing material and as disposable work mats.  One guy, a competitive downhill ski racer, used the product to wax his skis. He told us that the knit texture was perfect for applying wax, and he felt it gave him a competitive edge. My favorite “outside the box” use came from a facility in the Midwest. They were a consistent customer, but they were not in the semiconductor business or any other high tech business that we could ascertain. Our sales rep visited them to find out what they were doing with our wipers. It turns out that they were in the animal breeding business and they said that our wipers, due to their porous knit, made a perfect filter for bull semen. Talk about unintended uses of an invention…

Dr. Thornburg’s premise, that very simple inventions can have great functionality, is an insight that can be of significant value to businesses. Your customers will often find uses for your products that you never could have imagined. Typically, it is the simpler and less specialized products that lend themselves to these unintended uses. It’s possible that uses that were never imagined when the product was designed can end up accounting for the lion’s share of sales, or even spawn a completely new product line.

One final story of unintended uses.

Way back when, we produced a product for cleaning electronic components and tape head capstans on computer mass-storage units. The product, called Texpad®, was a non-woven piece of fabric saturated with isopropyl alcohol and packaged in a foil pouch. We knew people used this product for many things other than cleaning tape heads, but one day we received a letter from a Florida police officer that really surprised us.  

It read, “…where can I get these Texpads? A friend gave me a box, and they are great. Every day I deal with criminals and the scum of the earth. When I come home at night to my family, I need to disinfect myself. Your products are perfect for this…”

The key word was disinfect, and it led us to developing a whole new product line of disinfecting hand wipes.

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