The Innovation Method Behind Swiffer Madness

Design consultancy Continuum has helped P&G and Reebok make game-changing products. How? By understanding their clients’ client.

To make a product that meets an unmet need, you need to find the right problem to solve–which sounds simple enough, until you try to do it. That’s why megafirms like Proctor & Gamble and Reebok call in Continuum, an innovation consultancy that gets to the bottom of innovation with a process called Phase Zero.


“Phase Zero was actually stepping back from what we were asked to design and understanding really what the context was of the product we were asked to innovate,” Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai tells David Burkus at 99u.

The proof is in the project: The Reebok Pump and Swiffer each changed their respective game because they addressed an unspoken customer need, through deep-level design thinking.

The Pump

Think back to 1988. The video above should help. Nike had just dropped the Air–a sneaker that would go down in history–and surpassed Reebok as the top American footwear company. The Air, they claimed, had an “energy return” system that would, well, return energy to the wearer. Reebok came to Continuum needing a similar alchemy.

As part of their due diligence, Continuum studied high school basketballers: They found that growth spurts led to too tight or too loose shoes, which hampered their play and parents fed up with buying new kicks every few months. Plus, pros were getting ankle injuries.

So here was Continuum’s play: an inflatable air pocket around the ankle. It would be lightweight and prevent injuries, plus wearers could pump their ankles’ content, giving the product personalization; plus it wouldn’t be some awkward add-on, but baked in during manufacturing. Hello Pumps.

The Swiffer

Proctor & Gamble needed a new cleaning business–one that might involve a new tool. So they hired Continuum, which in its research realized that people were cleaning their mops as much as they were cleaning their floors–meaning that there was space for a speedier clean.


“Continuum had created a new problem: how to provide a better cleaning tool than a mop, with less time spent cleaning,” Burkus writes. “The team used that knowledge to design a new cleaning tool: essentially a wet towel on a stick that could be thrown away once it was soiled.”

Enter the Swiffer, whose refills you probably need to buy soon. To get there, Burkus says that Continuum pondered two key consumer points:

  • How do they interact with current products on the market?
  • What challenges do they have with the current offerings?

If you can find those answers, you can find the right problem, which can lead to the right product. It’s the same case for startups–Orchestra CEO Gentry Underwood told us the same about building Mailbox.

Now get out there and innovate.

Start Projects With Phase Zero

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.


[Image: Flickr user Jenny Downing]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.