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Herman Miller's Clinical Trials


Herman Miller took the office by storm with an ergonomically correct chair. Now it's trying to build up its hospital business

It seems fitting that Herman Miller (MLHR) is remaking its Aeron chair—once a $1,000 status symbol that allowed Web moguls of the '90s to sit coolly and comfortably while navigating the Internet—as hospital furniture. Just as the leaders of the dot-com boom are themselves graying, the office-furnishings giant hopes to cash in on one of this era's megatrends: the graying of America.

The Aeron's ergonomics have now inspired the Nala, which has an easy-to-adjust seat designed, in theory, to help people recovering from surgery. Herman Miller's first patient-oriented product for the clinical market, the Nala makes its debut on June 9 at Chicago's NeoCon World's Trade Fair, a furnishings industry show, and will go on sale to hospitals in the fall for a list price of $1,800—pretty costly for patient chairs.

The timing could be right. With many companies downsizing or freezing new hires, demand for office furniture—even the still-popular Aeron, which now sells for $750—is expected to decline. Although the Zeeland (Mich.) company's revenue rose 10.5% last year, to nearly $2 billion, growth is slowing from 14.6% a year earlier. Herman Miller already has a growing business supplying hospitals and doctors' offices with furniture, including desks, chairs, pharmacy shelves, and steel carts. While the company doesn't break out unit sales, it says health-care furniture revenue has grown at an annual clip of 15% for the past five years. Now its designers are taking a closer look.

Moving into hospitals makes sense for designers of office furniture. "The need for more ergonomic hospital furniture follows naturally the trend that has happened in the office in the last 20 years or so," says Pascal Malassigné, a research scientist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee and an industrial design professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Because many hospitals need to upgrade outdated facilities, now is a smart time to develop innovative clinical furniture, he adds.

Why not, then, Herman Miller designers wondered, do for patients what's been done for those confined to hours of desk labor—make the seat as comfortable and functional as possible.

Using the existing design and engineering intellectual property that allows the Aeron and other chairs to tilt smoothly had another plus: Herman Miller could avoid making a costly new research and development investment. "We didn't want to go out and reinvent," says Tom Granzow, senior program manager for Herman Miller for Healthcare, who ran product planning and strategy on the Nala project. The company saved a year of R&D time.

Still, Granzow's team needed to determine whether such a design could apply in the realm of clinical furniture. Beginning in 2005, it conducted research in nine hospitals around the country. Designers and engineers visited patient rooms and met with nearly 200 nurses and doctors. The company also enlisted Boston-based innovation firm Continuum, known for its work in health-care-device design, to conduct research and advise on aesthetic concepts.

The study revealed how difficult it is for patients to get up from traditional stationary chairs found in most hospitals. That work clarified Herman Miller's goal: to create a transitional piece of furniture that can help a patient sit up with ease after being confined to a hospital bed for days or weeks, and to do so without using full muscle control or a caregiver's help.

Nurses and physicians also advised on several crucial details, such as making sure an intravenous-medication line wouldn't catch on the chair's arms and the need to find antimicrobial upholstery that could be cleaned if blood or other fluids get trapped in the seams.

Beyond such practical concerns, both design teams wanted to create a visually pleasing chair that would serve as a brand symbol, as the Aeron has for the past 14 years. The aim was to make an inviting piece of furniture that looked anything but clinical while serving clinical purposes.

It's such user-centered research that could give Herman Miller an advantage over established clinical-furniture makers, says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, who consulted with Herman Miller in the early '90s but was not involved with the Nala's development. "We're seeing the beginning of a revolution in health care around people thinking of the user's experience," he says.

Already, rival Steelcase, (SCS) which leads the office-furniture segment with $3.4 billion in annual sales, has had a successful run with its Nurture by Steelcase line of hospital furniture, which offers patient chairs and also is based on user-centered design. (Steelcase doesn't break out sales figures.)

But Herman Miller is taking a different approach. While Steelcase chairs are designed for patients recovering from specific procedures, the Nala is meant to be bought in bulk by hospitals and used by a variety of patients.

With its identity as a patient chair, the Nala most likely isn't destined to become the status symbol the Aeron once was. But its debut could help the furniture maker in a healthy—and increasingly competitive—market.

Return to IN: Inside Innovation Table of Contents

Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.

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