| Mar 14, 2023

Sweeping Success: How Swiffer Changed the Way We Clean Floors

P&G used human-centered design principles to reinvent the mop — and in the process create a household name.

It’s the epitome of business success: Creating a product your customers believe they can’t live without. When Proctor & Gamble introduced Swiffer to the world in 1999, millions of consumers were hooked and the new sweeper forever changed how we clean. What used to take up to an hour is completed in minutes. Personally, I can barely remember the days of cleaning without Swiffer — precisely the reaction you want from customers.

However, Swiffer almost didn’t reach the store shelves. Motivated to revive stagnant sales in the Mr. Clean floor-cleaning line, the consumer goods multinational Procter & Gamble initially intended to create a new floor-cleaning detergent. Instead, P&G invented a ground-breaking, billion-dollar product — and launched a new “quick clean” product category. 

The key to Swiffer’s success was P&G applying human-centered design principles to its product development process. Design is usually assumed to be related to aesthetics, but it’s much more. Human-centered design puts customer needs first to ensure the right problem is being solved. Without this approach, Swiffer would not be the household name it is today.

A Better Way to Clean Floors

In 1994, dozens of brands were competing for market share in the home-cleaning market. At that time, innovation in floor-cleaning products was typically focused on detergent improvements. P&G, with a corporate goal of generating $5 million from new lines, already had a significant business with Mr. Clean, but wanted to shake up the market with a new product. 

Then one day, a P&G executive watched his wife clean their kitchen floor and had an epiphany: What about a better way to clean floors. 

Cleaning floors has never been anyone’s favorite chore. For decades, people have used simple mops and buckets, and the worst part was squeezing the dirt from the mop into the bucket. Sweeping up dust required a broom and dustpan. 

Although the company still intended to develop a new detergent or a better way to dispense it, P&G hired design consultancy firm Continuum (now EPAM Continuum) to find a better method of cleaning floors. Their researchers decided to step back and take a page from human-centered design and learn about floor cleaning directly from customers.

Solving the Real Problem

For human-centered design to work, it must address the right problem. The design research team utilized ethnographic research (observing users in their natural environment) by visiting customers’ homes to watch them clean kitchen floors, one of the first times P&G used this methodology. One thing became immediately clear: Their hosts had already cleaned the floors before they arrived. They realized that homeowners view the cleanliness of the kitchen floor as a reflection of themselves. 

Through feedback and testing, researchers gleaned other important insights: Cleaning a floor was unpleasant, cumbersome, and time-consuming. The test subjects swept up dust and dirt before they started mopping and spent more time wringing out the dirty mob than sweeping. 

One particular interaction made an impression on researchers. When they asked a customer what she wanted in a new floor-cleaning detergent, she instead led them to her closet full of mops, brooms, and a bucket. She told them a soap would not clean up her real mess. They had uncovered an entirely different problem and solution. Consumers didn’t want a new detergent — they wanted a quick and simple mop to clean the floor. 

The Right Solution

Once the product designers understood the real problem, they started brainstorming how to develop a faster and more robust tool. 

After various prototypes and testing, designers devised an appliance that electrostatically captured dust and dirt on a paper surface. The user could detach the pad from the handle once the floor was clean. The swivel-head design made it easy to maneuver, and the disposable pad meant not having to touch the dirt. 

The design team called the product “fast clean,” though eventually P&G would name it “Swiffer,” referring to its capacity for “swiftly and effortlessly sweeping and swiping.

The R&D director for household cleaners at P&G at the time, Wilbur Strickland, said: “We started putting out early prototypes. People didn’t realize they had that much dirt on their floors. They would turn over the [Swiffer] like, ‘Oh my god. Can I have one?’”


Lessons Learned

Swiffer’s success illustrates the importance of human-centered design to business growth and product innovation. The strategies used still hold today and can be applied to developing physical products and digital experiences, including websites and apps. The crucial lessons from P&G’s product development include: 

  1. Solving the correct challenge: The P&G team initially focused on a new, more potent cleaning agent without first determining consumers’ primary issue with cleaning floors. 
  2. Good design uses ethnographic research: The design team was only able to understand the universal frustration with the old floor-cleaning process after directly observing people in their homes. 
  3. Never stop innovating: P&G didn’t rest on its laurels. One year after the initial launch, the company introduced Swiffer Wet and continues to add to its Swiffer product line. Today, P&G sells a full suite of Swiffer products – from dusters and cordless vacuums to air cleaning devices.  
  4. Test early and often: While it may take time to convince stakeholders of a new idea, testing directly with users helps make the case.

Sweeping Success

By taking a human-centered design approach and backing it up with user research and prototyping, P&G created a $1 billion market where it didn’t exist before. Swiffer significantly impacted home-cleaning habits by making cleaning easier and reducing cleaning times by up to 50%

To this day, Swiffer remains one of P&G’s most successful product launches. When released to the global market in July 1999, the product generated $100 million in sales during the year’s final four months. At the product’s first anniversary, P&G had sold over $11.1 million in Swiffer starter kits across the United States, capturing more than 60% of the specialized mop market. Swiffer products are now a mainstay in households worldwide and continue to revolutionize how people clean.

Sherry Keyles
Sherry Keyles

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Sherry is a writer, editor, and podcast producer with over 25 years of experience creating impactful content for the financial, technology, compliance, and healthcare industries. view profile


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