Consumers have a key role to play in a circular economy. They can contribute to circular flows in a variety of ways, but it is important that the circular alternatives are easier to apply and more attractive than the linear. Companies thus need to design their circular products and services based on a good understanding of customer needs.
It’s not enough that there are circular solutions that work – they must also be sufficiently attractive that consumers want them and choose them over the linear alternatives.
“There are many different things that companies can do to make it easier for consumers to choose a circular alternative,” says Anneli Selvefors, researcher at RISE’s unit Sustainable Business. “One way is to shape the actual business model to make it easy to temporarily use something instead of owning it, for example through rental or leasing services. Leased products can also be customised to make them easier for each new user. If a vehicle is leased for use by several different people, it is good if you can quickly adjust the seats, connect your phone to the car and make other necessary personal settings. Because if you have the car for an hour, you don’t want to spend ten minutes on setting things up before you can get underway.”
Another way of making it easier for consumers is to design products so that they’re well suited for inclusion in circular flows. An example of this might be making the product easy to inspect or transport.
“Car odometers are a good example of a specific solution that has long facilitated resale,” says Anneli Selvefors. “An odometer makes it easy for the next buyer to gain a perception of the product. By knowing how far the car has gone, you can often get an indication of its condition and the measures that may need to be taken in the near future. When it comes to transport, there are many solutions that make it easier for people to buy new goods, such as buying furniture in flat packages. But the furniture that you bring home as flat packages should also be designed to be easily disassembled and repacked in another flat package to facilitate transport for the next user.”
In some cases, products can be circulated and reused just as they are. But others may require refurbishment or remanufacturing to bring them back to like-new condition before they are ready for a new cycle of use. There are currently no standards for circular design, but there is still a lot happening in the field. For example, last year the European Parliament adopted a resolution with several measures that would facilitate circular consumption, including the right to repair.
“On the one hand, you can think longer warranties and requirements to provide spare parts for a certain number of years,” says Sara Renström, researcher at the RISE unit Technologies for Interaction. “Another and more difficult question concerns how the products we buy fit with the ones we already have. For example, can I still use my headset if I buy a new phone?”
Many times, you don't know what you want until you see the solution
The foundation of user-centric circular design is starting from what customers need. However, this does not necessarily mean that there are stated needs.
“Many times, you don't know what you want until you see the solution, or only when someone close to you has the solution,” says Sara Renström. “Consumers may not immediately accept a new circular product or service. It may take time to understand what it means, for example, to lease rather than buying and how it can fit into your everyday life. So we need to provide solutions and highlight good examples so that consumers can see which circular alternatives are available, but also to be patient if the solutions are not immediately adopted.”
Both she and Anneli Selvefors are seeing that interest in user-centric circular design is increasing among businesses.
“They are welcome to contact us if they want to know more,” says Anneli Selvefors. “We can contribute with skills development and training in this area, as well as concrete support in the development of new products and services. With our tools and method kits, we can help companies to better understand customer and user needs, and to critically review and generate new ideas and solutions.”
Foto: PKFP, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons