IKOU Portable Chair How it All Began
In April 2016, I gave birth to my first son. I believed then, like anyone else would, that I would go back to work after maternity leave and my new life as a mother would begin.
At the end of that same year, my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which would compromise his motor functions. In an instant, back to work – and much more than that – was no longer a reality for me. I still vividly remember the whorl of denial, anger, and anxiety I felt when trying to make sense of it all.
After four years spent focusing on my son’s rehabilitation, I instead found myself full insight into the challenges of raising children with disabilities.
That experience set me on this course: to start this business, to bring the IKOU Portable Chair to life. It’s been a long road, but a journey I’d like to share with you.
Society Divided through Baby Products
You notice a lot of things in the everyday life of children with disabilities. And it was buying daily necessities for my son that made me acutely aware of the issues which led me to IKOU.
Normally, purchasing something for your child can be delightful and fun: you look for something nice or something you want and you buy it. However, there is an inherent split in the world of baby products between items ‘designed’ for children with disabilities and for those without. For the former, they are nearly always function-over-form and disparagingly limited in choice. As a parent, I was faced with the reality that children with disabilities could only ever choose from what was ‘suitable’ for them, and not what delighted them (nor me).
Strollers and furniture items are especially notorious for this. Baby chairs, for example – we just want to use what everyone else uses; however, for children like my son, who have weaker cores or have difficulty holding themselves upright, what is commercially available to everyone is unsafe to be used for us.
I quickly started thinking, “if there was just a little more thought and work put into adapting typical baby chairs, any child could use them too.”
It became a hobby of mine – quite a useful one, now looking back – to look at baby products and imagine what could be done to make them more accessible. At the time, the sad reality for my son was a life dependent on assistive devices or mobility aids that blatantly screamed ‘designed for children with disabilities’. Additionally, nothing was portable nor designed to let my son sit safely enough to take outdoors. We were, effectively, confined to leading an indoor life.
I saw this as something that furthered the inherent gap between families of children with disabilities and families of those without. And couldn’t help but think: “there must be something we can do to bridge this gap.”
Making a Chair Unlike Any Before It
After graduating university, I joined Toyota. I spent 10 years there as a product manager, leading strategic planning and corporate pricing strategy for global vehicle products including Corolla. It was a dream job working in the world of product creation, and one that I look back to fondly.
However, to care for my son, I left the work I loved for three years. During that time, I came to realise how potentially divisive products can be. I started to believe that perhaps my time at Toyota, which taught me the power and influence a product can have, was to help me solve the issues facing families like mine.
A strong sense of purpose dawned on me: I wanted to create products meant for children with and without disabilities, leveraging myself as an extreme user, as a parent of a child living with disability.
This purpose led me to a chair.
For most children diagnosed with disabilities like my son, they spend most of their days sitting in what are called ‘adaptive seating devices’. Because they are hand-manufactured one by one in small production facilities, these bulky assistive seats, resembling high chairs, take nearly 6 months from order to delivery. Not only that, they are so unaffordable that most families can’t buy them without government subsidy.
While these chairs are great at helping children maintain their posture, it comes at the expense of size and weight. Beyond being impossible to take outside, they are often so large and unwieldy that they are placed and never moved from the few places they can fit in the home.
Affordable, so it’s accessible to everyone; desirable, so it appeals to both families of children with disabilities and of those without; portable, so children can experience more with their family and friends and spend time outside whenever they want to. These were the principles guiding the design of a baby chair unlike any before it. It was the beginning of the IKOU Portable Chair.
Feeling over Function
Spring of 2019, I visited the Tokyo studio of IDEO, a San Francisco born global design consultancy best known for its work in human-centred design. I was always curious about IDEO since an ex-colleague of mine worked there at the time. Reading books and articles about the famous design firm, I knew without a doubt that IDEO’s approach made them the only partner that could translate my idea and concept to a world class design.
I first pitched my ideas to the industrial designers there with little certainty of how it would go. I had no proven commercial product, I had no team; it was just me and my new found purpose. However, they resonated with what I strove to change, felt my passion as strongly as I did, and I left the presentation room with a new business partner, a new direction, and decided to resign from Toyota to pursue IKOU.
We kicked off an intense 4-week project in August of the same year. We started with extensive user research centred around the lives of families with children like mine. To tighten our concept, we framed our interviews as deep discussions on what ‘sitting’ meant to each family. Quickly, we found what users were looking for in a chair wasn’t the function of sitting. It was a feeling of togetherness: everyone being in the same space, to be outdoors with your children, letting them experience different things.
So the design direction was clear. Rather than focusing solely on the function of holding the child in place, let’s ensure we facilitate this feeling through our products. Let’s create a design that gives any child the opportunity to spend more time with their families; a design that lets anyone pick up the chair and go outside with ease. And with these design principles, the development of the IKOU Portable Chair began.
Built for Children; Designed for Parents
We drafted over 100 chair designs in the development phase to get the shape right. Through extensive user testing, we ultimately narrowed it down to 10 designs to prototype using scrap materials and arrived at our final design.
If we only prioritised the concept of the chair being ‘also for children with disabilities’, then this phase of determining the shape of the chair would have heavily featured input from doctors and rehabilitation experts. However, while the resulting design would indeed deliver on ‘maintaining correct seating position’, the chair itself would resemble none other than the assistive seating devices we were striving to veer away from. Furthermore, this chair would never be a portable product.
Based on the feedback from our user interviews, we were aiming to design this chair to have function, of course, but more so, to evoke the feelings families sought after in the product.
To ensure we delivered on this, the team once again gathered a number of families of children with and without disabilities. Understanding how parents felt seeing their children seated in our prototypes then altering our designs based on their feedback was the approach that brought us to the final shape of the chair.
Then came designing the exterior. The team was particularly sensitive to two sentiments that emerged from the parents: “everytime I see an assistive device or mobility aid, I’m being reminded of my child’s disability,” “products for kids tend only to look flashy or cute, which isn’t my taste”.
Thanks to this, our concept was clear: built for children; designed for parents. This meant that the chair must let children sit safely and comfortably, while also having an exterior that made parents want to use and show off the product outside.
The result was a sleek, gender-neutral design for the parents who give their all for their children everyday.
Experts Connected by a Common Cause
Next was the exciting phase of manufacturing the product. It was a challenge to find a suitable partner. They needed to deliver on the design and mass production at a high enough standard to please not only the discerning Japanese consumer, but also for consumers abroad. Frankly, we weren’t confident that we’d find a partner willing to collaborate with a new start-up with no success track record like us.
Despite this uncertainty, I reached out to various ex-colleagues who helped me a lot in my previous work. The first person who was willing to extend his help was Akiei Oku, the president of Toray Carbon Magic.
In addition to their history of developing race cars, Toray Carbon Magic is a well-established player in the industry of manufacturing, designing, analysing, prototyping, and mass producing vehicles, motorcycles, and a number of high-precision devices. President Oku agreed to support our production and engineering processes because he empathised with our concept and “saw innovation in [our] product”.
Bringing in his expertise helped us identify a new problem area in our design early on: “If we were to deliver on all the functions in the design, weight would become an issue. In order to keep the product portable and let parents easily carry it around, a high level plastic resin solution would be key.”
With that we were introduced to someone Oku said was keen on trying new things: president Torigoe of Torigoe Plastic Industry, a company known for its successes in new product development. Torigoe Plastic is a long-standing manufacturer of authentic goods for various automobile companies’ dealer operations. They also specialise in products requiring high measurement precision. As with president Oku, the team at Torigoe also empathised with IKOU’s cause and readily joined the development team.
It was June of 2020 when we assembled all the key players in the development and production teams, professionals and experts connected by their empathy towards a common cause.
Six Water Bottles
Despite the two best-in-class manufacturers now on our development team, neither company had made a portable chair for infants before. This type of product has a lot of unique specifications and measurements, so the first step was to create a prototype using plastics and resins to surface any potential problems.
In a month, we completed the prototype and conducted user tests with 10 children ranging in motor function (from children without disabilities to those with down syndrome and conditions like my son). We saw our chair successfully help children – in a seated position – maintain their posture stably. More importantly, we heard encouraging feedback from the parents and caregivers: “[with this] we can eat out without hesitation,” “even though it’s not designed specifically for children with disabilities, it looks more comfortable than the custom made chairs, so I want one right now!”
However, as president Oku raised early on, our biggest hurdle was weight. To arrive at the optimal weight for the chair, we asked caregivers to carry a similarly-sized box filled with 500ml water bottles. Our testers slung them over their shoulders while walking around as we recorded how many bottles they could carry comfortably.
The result was 6 water bottles, 3 kilograms. This meant our prototype, at 4 kilograms, was 1 kilogram too heavy. Our only option was to replace aluminium components with plastic, which could affect the strength of the chair, something that was uncompromisable. After countless trials, we arrived at our second prototype at the end of 2020, which would eventually become the basis for the model used for mass production.
Reducing Costs by 40%
We wanted to position our product so it was affordable to the average consumer, since the chair featured functions that catered to children regardless of disability. To reach a price point where families of children with disabilities could directly purchase our chair without subsidies, we invested in metal moulds to reduce the variable costs of production and devised a strategy of scaling unit sales as we amortised fixed costs. However, both the metal moulds and production costs inflated beyond our expectations. We needed to reduce costs by 40% despite having locked in our final product design. The chair simply had too many component parts even after distilling it to what was functionally essential.
Some designers suggested eliminating the tilt mechanism, which allowed the seat to recline while maintaining a certain angle. However, that was a feature essential for children with weaker torsos who tend to slip forward while seated. This would limit the range of children able to use the chair, thus a feature we couldn’t compromise on.
Fortunately, one of our mentors, Youji Kanie, who was an expert working in a large manufacturing company specialising in plastic products, found the root of the problem: the complexity of individual mechanisms that let the chair function. We switched to simpler mechanisms, and without diluting our product value and quality were able to reduce the number of parts overall – the key driver of our costs. After roughly 6 months of revisiting and tweaking our design, our efforts paid off and we met our cost targets.
Delivering on Quality
In August 2021, we began preparations for mass production. Our challenge here was whether or not producing at scale would yield a cheaply made product, the opposite of the value we envisioned. Here, we were helped by Mold Tech, a company specialising in plastic and resin decoration. They were well-trusted by car manufacturers for precise detailing work, and they helped us fine-tune our finishings to deliver on the quality we wanted.
From the beginning, I knew the finishing on the chair needed to convey quality. But communicating this to the entire production team was key in ensuring this quality is upheld, advice I received from Youji, who pointed out that people often have different interpretations of ‘quality’. Using lots of physical examples he helped me communicate to the production teams so we all strove toward the same output, and the product quality I had envisioned.
A Story of Heart and Effort
From concept to production, it took over 3 years to develop the IKOU Portable Chair. We experienced countless setbacks, including the complications caused by coronavirus. But, we did it, despite it all.
Everyone involved shared in our vision, empathised with the families we were designing for, and put their all into producing something good right to the end.
This is the story of the heart and effort that went into bringing the IKOU chair to life. And it’s my hope that I can share these feelings with you and with as many users of our products as possible.