Once or twice a week for the next month, we'll be sharing insights from one of our speakers about the opportunities and challenges the industry faces while also hearing a little about how they got started. Today's Q&A is with Sharon Franke, the Director of Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab at Good Housekeeping, who will give a presentation at the Smart Kitchen Summit entitled "Research From Good Housekeeping: Is The CEO of the Home Ready for a Kitchen that Talks Back to Her?". You can read more about Sharon here.
SKS: In your mind, how has the role of technology evolved in both the home and the kitchen?
Franke: Technology has taken over our living and entertainment rooms, vastly changing how we stay in touch with family and friends, take in information, listen to music, and watch television. In the comfort and safety arena, we’re starting to see smart devices take hold. A good example is the Nest which because of its ability to learn and respond to consumer behavior is showing widespread adoption. We’re just starting to see smart appliances enter the kitchen and although consumers are still trying to figure out if they need them, we can see the real potential of what’s to come. Right now, people question why they need to start their coffeemakers from their bedrooms the minute they wake up or turn their slow cookers or their ovens on and off from the car. However, when they start discovering products like the June oven that are as intuitive to operate as an iPhone and offer finely tuned cooking results, they’ll start to embrace tech in the kitchen.
SKS: What technology or service in the kitchen on the market today has the best chance of becoming mainstream?
Franke: I’m excited about the new Samsung Family Hub refrigerator with a camera inside. Who wouldn’t love to be able to look at her smartphone while she’s at the supermarket or filling her Instacart order from the office and see if she has to buy more milk or if she has enough broccoli left for a recipe?
SKS: How do consumers view technology in their kitchens?
Franke: Consumers don’t embrace technology for its own sake. What’s important to consumers is that it solve a problem, and one they recognize they have. If they can relate to how technology will make their lives easier, safer, or help them eat healthier, they’re on board with it. I don’t think anyone who ever cleaned a dirty oven with rubber-gloved hands and oven cleaner, would want to return to the days of non-self-cleaning ovens. However, to get users to actually take advantage of technology that appliances offer requires that they be easy to use and intuitive to program. While people understand the benefits of a coffeemaker that can be preset to start brewing in the morning, attempting to program one is often so difficult that the feature goes unused. Microwave ovens with sensor technology and combination cooking have been around for about 30 years but it is rare that anyone uses anything but the number pads or “Minute Plus”. When we get to the point where a system like Innit’s allows us to put the chicken in the oven, push start, and get perfect results, we’ll never want to go back to guessing cooking times, temperature settings, and whether or not our food is ready.
SKS: What role do you believe design plays in how tech gets adopted both in the kitchen and more broadly the home?
Franke: If by design, you mean attractiveness, I think functionality and product benefits are more important than design. First of all, while people generally gravitate to more attractive items, it’s important to recognize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At one time here in the Kitchen Appliances Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, we included “style” evaluations by consumers as part of our testing. However we discontinued that aspect of our procedures because we found that there was rarely consensus as to what constituted attractive design. While some people loved the professional look of the Wolf and Viking ranges, others disliked the industrial aesthetic and rated the stoves from more mainstream brands more highly for style. Perhaps more importantly, when a product offers standout performance, appearance can be overlooked. Right now, one of the most coveted kitchen appliances is the Vita-Mix blender, which, with all due respect for its topnotch blending ability, is not known for its good looks.
Having said this, all things being equal, people do care about style and certainly have come to expect more from tech products than the beige and even black boxes that were characteristic of the first computers and cable boxes to enter their lives. Certainly design in terms of both aesthetics and usage helped to catapult the iPod and iPhone into almost instantaneous consumer acceptance.
SKS: What’s your go to gadget or product in the kitchen that you can’t live without?
Franke: My salad spinner! I own up to being a late adopter but now that I own one it’s the first thing I pull out when I start cooking. In my house every meal includes some kind of greens whether it’s a salad or sautéed chard or a Thai noodle dish with lots of fresh herbs and I’m a stickler for making sure there’s no water clinging to the leaves to dilute dressings and sauces. No, I don’t miss drying lettuce with what seemed like a whole roll of paper towels any more than I miss using Easy Off! And speak about low tech---I’m still a fan of the original Zyliss salad spinner with a cord that you pull.
The Smart Kitchen Summit is happening in one month! If you want to hear Sharon Franke and other leaders talk about the future of the kitchen, cooking and foodtech, get your ticket today!