iRobot’s Insun Hong Wants Their Roomba Vacuums to Feel Right at Home

If the best tools are the ones that you use, it’s also true those very tools should be conveniently at hand – a perspective complicated when it comes to robot vacuums. The cleaning appliances are designed to run with increasing autonomy, but perform best when stationed conspicuously out in the open, a requirement that comes into direct conflict with our propensity to want to hide away devices and appliances that just don’t quite mesh with the rest of the home, in turn making them less effective in the process.

It’s this very dilemma that motivated Director of Industrial Design Insun Hong and her small team at iRobot to design the Roomba Combo j9+ robot vacuum and mop with a base station that softens the line between necessary functionality and welcoming form. We spoke with the iRobot designer via Zoom about the challenges of imagining a smart home cleaning device you might come to love… but don’t necessarily ever want noticed.

Hi Insun, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Yes, I’m Insun Hong, the Director of Industrial Design at iRobot. I’ve been with iRobot for about six and a half years, and in that time I’ve built a small team of seven designers whose core function is to design the look and feel, alongside the user experiences, around our hardware. We work closely with the software design team, and also have designers in China who work closely with our manufacturers there.

Let’s jump right into the design of the newly announced Roomba Combo j9+, specifically its docking base unit. It’s been designed with a wood(like) top and cabinet style storage that opens like a piece of furniture. Could you share the inspiration behind the design?

With the Roomba Combo j9+ we began with the core question: “How can we really keep the house always clean?” The obvious answer is add more features, improving the sensors, and make the vacuum even more powerful. But the other answer to keeping the house clean is recognizing it’s important to keep those cleaning devices nearby – where you eat, where you hangout, where life unfolds – and not hidden away in the closet or in the basement. We want our product to be right there in the living room or in your bedroom.

This seems very similar to the issue hampering air purifiers, an appliance that can seem like an imposition within the home. The device’s efficacy operates in conflict with the user’s inclination to hide it away.

Yes, we identified that as a major hurdle when we first kicked off this project around two to three years ago. We wanted to design a combination of hardware and technology that not only could co-exist, but integrate into the home environment like a piece of furniture.

We knew we had to come up with a new form factor, because the market was already filled with the same “trash can” docking station form factor that opens from the top. Our inspiration was furniture with a cabinet door that opened to the side. So we designed prototypes with a fixed top surface, and in doing so created a shape that could be identified and used as a side table, an object that makes it obvious you’re welcome to place something on top of it.

Insun Hong also noted the Roomba Combo j9+ robot vacuum and mop includes a physical button rather than touch capacitive design, further emphasizing its tactile presence.

That seems like an obvious direction, but noting the status quo, there must have been reasons why everyone else shares a very similar design?

It seems simple, but we actually had to work with our engineers to develop a new architecture permitting the cabinet-style design. It’s actually very difficult to design a black plastic box made to safely store liquids and house electronics – a design ready for mass production.

While the top looks like wood, it’s not real, is it? 

Genuine materials like wood or marble were not an option for us for a variety of reasons. So we had to explore different design solutions to elevate the design. For example, inspired by modern architecture, our design team wrapped the base dock with vertical lines. We integrated a soft leather-style pull tab, a primary touch point the user will interact with to open and store accessories. Those small details create an emotional experience more closely associated with opening a cabinet instead of a robot vacuum.

In the “Co-Exist” illustration the docking base station was taller and more side table in dimension. If the intent was to make this dock more furniture-like, why was the size diminished?

Good question! The design was mainly driven by the the tank volume. We wanted to give users the freedom not to have to refill the tank for 30 to 60 days. So that was what originally informed the dimensions before we began building different prototypes. We had three designers working at different locations at that time, mocking up models with foam core and wrapping each top in fabric or wood, then took them home to test each to see what they looked like in the bedroom, living room and others locations in the house. It was during this time I found myself putting stuff on top of it. I remember testing hundreds of different heights, depths, and widths before landing on the most acceptable size that met our original requirements and that could function as a side table. One version was too low and my son began using it as a stand!

Was there any thought about taking the side table concept even further? For example, making the docking unit cylindrical and hiding the round circular vacuum flush once docked?

Noting there are things like the motor and internal tank required inside, a rectangle is a more efficient use of space. So, yes, we did test a cylindrical model, but the increased size required to accommodate the same volume as the rectangular-shaped tank was not met with positive feedback.

Where have you found most of your users tend to keep their Roomba vacuums?

Mostly in the living room. But it really depends on a home’s layout. For example, if you’ve got a lot of open space without obstacles, walls, or doors, people like to place them between the living room and kitchen. But we’ve also noticed people like to station them in a big bedroom or even in the closet.

Will we see more color options to better match a wider spectrum of decor?

As a designer, I’d love to create more options for the customer. In the North American market we identified black as still being perceived as the most premium color. But we’re a global company, and we’ve noted customers in Europe and Asia, especially in Japan where white is popular, want different options.

But it’s important to note this is not just about color trends. Choosing different colors adds layers of challenges. A brief explanation is the robot’s sensors reacts differently to different colors and textures. Even the glossiness and grain of objects “seen” by the robot can help or hinder how it navigates and returns back to the dock. Any time we change colors, we have to recalibrate the robot.

Finally, I noticed you originally studied automotive design. How did you find yourself designing autonomous vehicles of a much smaller scale?

Designing cars is such a slow process [sigh]. It takes four years to bring a design to market if you’re lucky. I wanted to learn faster and do more. So before joining iRobot I began at HP where I was able to put out five products in the market within one to two years. It was really really fun for me to see my work go from a sketch and to the market that fast. And when I got married and I moved to Boston, I joined iRobot. Seven years later, I can say it’s been a great place to work!

Many thanks to iRobot’s Insun Hong. We plan to follow-up with a hands-on review of her team’s Roomba Combo j9+ robot vacuum and mop in the near future.

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