Topo started as a pile of strange toys and ended up an elegant all-in-one solution, with a bizarre stop along the way including flashing lights, onboard electronics, and windshield wiper motors. Here’s Topo’s story.
We’ve been discussing the path of taking a product to market. Yesterday we covered identifying what BizDev guys would call “identifying a market need”. The way we talk, that means realizing something is broken.
So we realized that at a standing desk, flat is bad, and that *something else* is probably better.
But what exactly is something else?
This is the ideation phase - brainstorming solutions to the identified problem of “flat”.
We asked ourselves, what exactly is wrong with flat? What’s good about the “not flat” of real life? The first good answer seemed to be movement.
When you’re walking across natural terrain, you’re moving relative to the static ground (duh). And that movement hits most of the very good stuff of “not flat”. If it’s challenging terrain, you hit the full range of motion of your joints and tissues. You dynamically load stabilizer muscles and challenge your brain to balance you adaptively as you stride.
At a standing desk, you can’t move much relative to your desk, or you’ll quickly be out of reach of your keyboard and mouse. So we thought we’d move the ground instead.
Sounds like a treadmill desk, but there are many problems there, which you can read about in depth in Why Treadmill Desks are Bad Ergonomics.
The Birth of Pivotal
We generated hundreds of ideas and dozens of sketches for ways to move the ground under your feet. We ran tests for which movements really helped and which didn’t, hoping to whittle the mechanism down to the greatest potential value proposition (cost vs. effectiveness).
At the time, our research and testing pointed to moving each foot independently, so we built prototypes that did just that:
That one on the far right, pivotal, seemed a clear winner.
That beauty is powered by a laptop charger and a windshield wiper motor out of Chevy trucks.
And it was pretty awesome. Our beta testers loved it. They were standing longer and experiencing less fatigue, all by introducing just a little bit of movement.
Unfortunately, early cost estimates were landing Pivotal at a retail price of $500, out of reach of many of the people we're trying to help.
So back to the drawing board we went. There had to be a better solution.
The Birth of Topo
It’s funny - Topo was largely born well before Pivotal. We just couldn’t believe it was good enough - it seemed too simple. But after months of prototyping the now clearly way too expensive Pivotal forced us to give simple a second look.
And that second look was illuminating.
All along, we had been thinking that to drive movement of the user, we had to actually move the ground. But the human brain is so beautifully complex that it is able to do the hard work for us.
When we went back to the drawing board, back to our odd shapes shoved under conventional anti-fatigue mats, we were amazed to see how much people move when there are features to play with. It turned out, just providing a varied terrain is enough to drive movement.
Simple and elegant as it was, a pile of random crap on the floor is not an ideal solution. We wanted a complete replacement for conventional anti-fatigue mats, and we wanted it to be the absolute best shape to drive healthy standing.
So we put together a list of the features that made sense to us, and then like diligent ergonomics Santa Clauses, we checked it twice (ok more like 50 times). We took the shapes we thought we wanted and put them to the test. We cut features, added features, reshaped features (there was a lot of reshaping features).
We set up GoPro cameras in the offices of standing desk users, to see what space they truly occupied. Turns out, most people stand in a sort of T-shape naturally, a far cry from the wide rectangles that are conventional anti-fatigue mats. So we made a mat that covers where people actually naturally stand, plus we wanted to drive more motion in the corners for hip health, so we made sure to make those areas extra appealing to use.
A home-brew calf volume tester was constructed. We just had to know down to the centiliter how much blood different feature shapes pushed back into circulation. This fantastic science apparatus is basically a laundry basket full of water, narrowed at the top to offer finer resolution for volume changes.
When we thought we were getting close, we glued a bunch of plywood together and headed to the CNC router at our local tech shop to turn it into a mold. It’s absolutely amazing technology - check it out:
We spent hours coating that mold with bondo, sanding, coating again, sanding again, over and over to make sure the surface finish was perfect. All to create the masterpiece that was the first one-piece Topo prototype:
Not going to win any design awards, but at least it’s not flat!
We recruited more beta testers and gathered as much feedback as we could. We needed to nail the shape to really deliver the optimal standing experience. We cut more molds, poured more foam (boy did we learn a lot about pouring foam - turns out 5 seconds too little or too much mixing will spell disaster).
Until finally, hundreds of hours and a lab floor completely covered in foam overflow later, we nailed the shape:
At long last, we had a design that garnered tons of praise and no “yea, but THIS could be better”. And boy does that hard work show in the performance of Topo.
Seriously, some of our beta testers complained about withdrawal symptoms when their trial period was over. And watching a standing desk user stand on Topo is incredible. I don’t think anyone could stand still on Topo while they work if they tried - it is that effective at driving healthy movement.
Our testers were standing longer, with less fatigue, less blood pooling, less pain, more smiles. And actually getting the benefits out of their standing desks that they were promised. The benefits that encouraged them to stand up and stand out like prairie dogs in their cubicles. And that brings smiles to our faces as well.
Topo is launching in just a few days (don’t worry, we’ll be sure to let you know). In the mean time, we’ll be back tomorrow to cover another angle of Topo’s story - getting production and fulfillment up and running.