Suds dripping down his face, the government worker mumbles in the shower, his eyes shut, his lips in motion.
The people in his living room can't hear him. But they see his video image flickering on their black-and-white screen and make a mental note: Who is he talking to?
God, it turns out.
"I am in my own little world when I shower," the government worker, 52, later reveals. "I meditate. I pray."
The social worker keeps turning the taps in her shower. Back and forth, back and forth. Two or three people watch and scribble into notepads: Why is she doing that?
"I try to run [the water] on the sore spot," the social worker, 32, later tells her viewers. "I make it as hot as I can and then as cold as I can. I want the heat to get to it."
Absorbing every little quirk in the shower was a cluster of researchers from QualiData Research Inc. in New York. The voyeuristic exercise was not unusual. A growing number of companies regularly watch us use the most prosaic of products: diapers, computers, disposable cameras and, in this case, shower heads.
The observations should spark ideas for new or improved merchandise, clever advertising campaigns, better services or all the above. Or so the companies hope.
That's why Moen Inc., part of Fortune Brands Inc. (formerly American Brands), embarked on a deep dig into the consumer psyche as it developed a new massaging shower head, the Revolution, which has been in stores since August.
"In the '50s it was the sunken living room," said Hy Mariampolski, QualiData's founder. "In the '70s it was the party deck. Now it seems to be the shower that's on the frontier of lifestyle extravagance."
Mariampolski, a sociologist by training, is not your traditional market researcher.
Neither was the legendary Al Moen. He invented the first single-handle faucet, but he stumbled on the idea by chance. While in college, Moen worked at a repair garage in Seattle to earn tuition money. As he cleaned up one day, a sudden burst of hot water from the old-fashioned two-handle faucet scalded his hands.
Eureka! A flash of genius, a product is born. That was back in 1937, though it was a decade before a company bought his technology and brought it to market.
Al Moen had no research to go on, just his own intuition and life experience.
But these days, companies eager to leapfrog ahead of the competition spend big bucks in search of the life experience that will lead them to the next big thing. Many do it through "observational research."
"It's a technique that gives irrevocable cues beyond what people say they want and need into what they really want and need," said Ralph Oliva, a marketing professor at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State. "It can be very telling in certain situations."
This is what it told Jack Suvak, Moen's marketing research director: Showering is not just about lather and rinse.
"Sometimes the obvious is not always apparent," Suvak said. "The obvious things don't bubble to the surface all the time."
Lifting the Shower Curtain But does that explain why Moen decided it needed to watch taking a shower? Naked?
Well, yes. Because, first, it's hard for people to articulate what they want about an everyday product such as a shower head, Suvak said. But also, for most of its 55-year history, the North Olmsted, Ohio, company has sold mostly faucets and sinks, and only to plumbing supply houses. It started selling shower heads to consumers only about three years ago.
"We had to fill in the knowledge gap when it came to consumers," Suvak said. "What we didn't know is what's behind the shower curtain."
So Suvak called Mariampolski, whose firm has been studying consumer behavior since it opened its doors in 1981.
Weeks of discussion between Suvak and Mariampolski boiled down to this: We must observe people in their showers, and we must observe them in the buff.
"We realized this would not be something everyone in society would be eager to do," Mariampolski said. "So we sat around brainstorming. Who, we asked ourselves, would be comfortable enough with their bodies to have us videotape them?"
It took only seconds to hit upon a willing segment of the population: social nudists.
Ultimately, nudists made up a big chunk of the 20 or so volunteers recruited by Mariampolski. His team posted messages on a few nudist Internet bulletin boards and placed ads in alternative newspapers to help assemble its cast.
Each had to fill a niche, a particular age or body type. But screening the respondents, work done by phone, proved a bigger challenge than finding them.
The researchers had to weed out "professional respondents" looking to collect the fee paid to participants in this kind of research.
"Also, there were a couple of people who made us feel uncomfortable, who obviously called in because they got a little bit of a charge out of it," Mariampolski said. "We didn't want anybody who might have had a salacious, exhibitionistic interest in participating. If anybody sounded a little off, we told them 'We'll get back to you.' We dropped them pretty quickly."
No models either. They're self-conscious and they pose too much, Mariampolski said. The goal was to keep it real.
In several weeks' time, he rounded up people from their mid-twenties to early sixties. Fat and skinny people. Tall and short people. Males and females of various ethnicities.
For about $250 each, they allowed Mariampolski's team into their homes, sometimes for half a day. They answered questions about their lifestyles and allowed the team to scope their houses and count their bathrooms.
Then, with the research team planted in another room, the participants undressed and lathered up.
Moen had tapped a design firm to build a tiny heat-and-moisture-resistant video camera and mounted it next to the shower head.
"We saw what the shower head saw," Mariampolski said.
They saw that most people have only one hand free while they shower. Most close their eyes sporadically. Without their glasses, many can't see even when their eyes are open. Often bathroom lighting does not penetrate the shower curtain. And because of these constraints, they have the darndest time fumbling around with massage settings.
That's why the peanut-shaped Revolution features a control dial below the water stream that allows consumers to constantly adjust the force and pulse of the water while providing what the company called "phenomenal coverage."
The center of the shower head spins and wobbles so that each stream of water twists and twirls, hence the name Revolution.
Nudity, Mariampolski said, was key to creating those features.
"You can see what they're protecting and what they're exposing," Mariampolski said. "It turns out that the shower is this emotional and almost spiritual experience. You're naked, you're interacting with flowing water, you're warm and isolated, and you're purifying. It's an intensely private moment."
Gathering Data The kind of "soft" information that Mariampolski and other researchers collect used to be the norm, until marketers had the sophisticated tools to gather hard numbers from large samples of the population. Today hard data often edge out the practice of watching a small group of consumers in their natural settings, said Dorothy Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School.
"But in recent years, there's been a resurgence in the observational methods," Leonard said. "Companies have become aware of the unarticulated needs of users, including the emotional content of products."
Conventional marketing methods have their place. By asking questions, for instance, Nissan Design International tested more than 90 samples of leather for the Infiniti J-30 before pinpointing three that evoked a scent preferred by U.S. noses, Leonard said in a 1997 Harvard Business Review article she co-wrote.
But that kind of traditional inquiry rarely leads to true innovation because it's tough for consumers to form opinions on products that don't exist, Leonard said.
Consider Huggies disposable diapers.
Kimberly-Clark Corp., which makes the diaper, hired a research firm to watch parents interact with their toddlers, Leonard said.
Researchers found that toddlers were eager to graduate to grown-up clothes. Parents were eager to earn bragging rights and also wanted to keep their toddlers dry.
But the parents weren't able to explain all that to the researchers. So by watching, the observers picked up on that unspoken desire. In 1991, the company rolled out Huggies Pull-Ups, a cross between diapers and underpants.
"By the time competitors caught on, the company was selling $400 million worth of the product annually," Leonard said.
Shopping Behavior Moen hopes to gain that kind of competitive edge with Revolution. To get there, the company also looked at people's real-time shopping behavior.
At an Oklahoma City Lowe's warehouse store known for high foot traffic in the shower-head aisle, Moen used hidden cameras to watch shoppers and then talked to some of them on their way out the door.
They learned that most consumers spend about five minutes looking at shower heads and buy a white or chrome finish. Usually, they walk out without speaking to a salesperson. That's why packaging is important and why Moen put the Revolution into an eye-catching, holographic, wedge-shaped box.
"The box had to be the silent salesperson," said Tim McDonough, Moen's senior product manager for bath products. "It had to jump off the shelf."
Moen's researchers also witnessed shoppers balancing the shower heads in their hands to get a sense of which was heavier, McDonough said.
"So we knew the Revolution had to be substantial," he said. "We knew that people equated weight with quality."
And they also seemed to equate a larger shower head with value and power, even though federal law limits the maximum water flow to 2.5 gallons per minute, said Klaus Fink, Moen's director of new-product development.
In other words, big does not mean more water, and even more water cannot exceed a certain level of output no matter how big.
"The trick was how to make 2.5 gallons of water feel like it's 3 gallons," Fink said.
That came down to engineering, to details such as the size of the water droplets, the shower-head orifices and other more nebulous factors such as "fluid mechanics" -- the science, in this case, of how water travels through the shower head.
A core group of at least eight people (including engineers, designers and marketers inside and outside Moen) set up shop across the highway from company headquarters and hashed over these details for roughly five months spanning 1999 and 2000.
"We built a shower stall with the largest hot-water tank available and we took showers on a daily basis," said Tom Overberg, Moen's senior project manager for product development. "We took many, many showers on a daily basis."
Covering Cold Spots? Overberg, an engineer by training, was part of the sequestered team that helped develop the Revolution. As he tells it, each team member personally sampled the 20 top-selling shower heads on the market at the time.
And they put them through some benchmark testing. For instance, the team duct-taped 250 test tubes together to form a grid and set the grid below each shower head in turn. When the first test tube filled, they shut off the water. "Then some poor soul had to go and map the water levels in each tube," he said.
The point of the exercise: to figure out whether the shower heads covered the targeted area evenly, which none of them did, he said. And that's one of the reasons you sometimes feel nasty cold spots when you're showering, Overberg said.
Armed with various test results and field data, the team started building prototype shower heads and took the various "horribly ugly" component pieces, some 1,000 of them, for some at-home trials.
"Wives and children were often solicited," said Fink, who helped supervise the off-site team.
Once in a while, a stray component would drop off. Sometimes the water "came out like an F-16," said Overberg. "Kids were occasionally sent screaming from the showers."
At home, the group didn't watch their family members. They just set up a baby monitor in the showers and listened for reaction. When a concept worked, they just heard "Aaaaah."
Powers of Observation
Wives. Children. Nudists.
Could they truly reflect the tastes and preferences of consumers at large?
Doesn't matter, said Jane Fulton Suri, head of the human factors discipline at Ideo, a San Franciso-based design consultancy that helped develop the Palm V and one of Yamaha's musical keyboards for children, among other products.
In her opinion, companies have become entirely too comfortable with large samples and batteries of identical questions, as in surveys or interactive Web research.
"One of the things we emphasize to our clients is the value of deep and careful observation of people in smaller numbers," Fulton Suri said. "These people should not necessarily be representative of the population at large."
In fact, looking at the fringes of a population often quickly highlights common behavior. "In extreme situations, you can spot habits more clearly," Fulton Suri said.
And the put-yourself-in-their-shower-stall method isn't a bad idea either, meaning that researchers should consider taking part in what they're observing, Fulton Suri said.
For instance, when DePaul Health Center outside St. Louis hired Ideo last year to help it better serve emergency-room patients, one researcher-"patient" kept a video camera at eye level as he was wheeled into the hospital.
What he saw was people in white coats, appearing and disappearing, without ever identifying themselves. He saw confusing signs all over the place, Fulton Suri said.
Having the experience helped the researcher decipher the test subjects' facial expressions, mumbling and other behavior, she added.
Companies also use observation to help launch advertising campaigns, said Bill Abrams, president and founder of Housecalls Inc., a market research firm in New York specializing in observational research.
Abrams should know. Since his firm opened in 1983, it has videotaped customers for Colgate-Palmolive Co., Johnson & Johnson, Duracell Inc., Pillsbury Co. and PepsiCo's Frito-Lay, to name a few.
For Eastman Kodak Co., Housecalls studied young adults, ages 18 through 24, as they used disposable cameras. Their tendency, Abrams noticed, was to purchase one camera and use it as a group. The phenomenon, Abrams said, inspired Kodak's commercials in the late 1990s for about three years.
"Two-thirds of the work we do, we're looking for the kind of benefit that can uniquely position something in consumers' minds," Abrams said. "We're living in a commercial culture. This is America, where people sell each other."
Revolution appears to be a hit, selling out in some stores, according to the company. Moen executives say they're not surprised given the detail they've unearthed about consumer preferences and human physiology.
From hydrotherapists, they learned that many people can sense a change in temperature of one degree and that showering stimulates the brain.
From in-depth interviews, they know that people expect different things from their showers at different times of day: rejuvenation, or relaxation, or exhilaration.
Because it has tried to engineer all this knowledge into its shower head, Moen is betting you'll pay up to $66 to buy the Revolution.
With about 45 brands of shower head on the market, not including labels specific to certain stores, the average price of a shower head was $19.50 last year, up barely a blip from the year before, according to Vista Group in Rolling Meadows, Ill., which tracks product sales in chain home centers and independent hardware stores and home-center outlets.
Moen was not interested in the under-$20 category because it realized that the more elaborate, over-$20 shower heads generated more than half the dollars in the market, company officials said.
So, did all this research, this lathering and rinsing pay off? Hard to know.
Moen won't reveal any numbers so far, not its research costs and not its sales.
But across the street from Moen headquarters, the Marriott Courtyard tested the Revolution early on and now has one in every room. And to save guests a trip to the store, they sell them there, right at the front desk.
But proving that consumer reaction is not always easy to interpret, one Marriott guest told the hotel's general manager, the shower "felt like a thousand frogs" hitting his body.