Design of baby changing surfaces

August 27, 2011

design / parenting

As I expected, I’ve been learning a lot about baby products the past several months, and how they are designed. I’ve learned how many completely unnecessary things the baby industry pushes onto parents, from articles of clothing to toys to packaging material, and it’s all been quite sad. But I’ve also learned about some good things that make a parent’s life, or a child’s life, better, and this is a good thing.

I found one specific pair of products to illustrate what I’ve learned better than anything else, and I wanted to share it, both as a tip for parents of babies and as a tip for designers of anything that people are expected to really use.

We were fortunate to be given a changing table a few weeks before our daughter was born. It’s a nice, wooden thing. It has some drawers in it for clothes, diapers, and holds random things like hairbrushes quite nicely. On top of it, of course, you’re expected to change the baby, and the baby industry has created some kind of pad surface thing to put there so the baby doesn’t have to be on a wooden surface. It requires a sheet, so we put a purple sheet on it. Purple is far better than pink, and it (in it’s darker hues) is my wife’s favorite color.

We also acquired, either through a gift or a purchase, a travel changing mat. It is a simple, plastic thing with a black side and a white side, and it closes up with velcro so you can put it into a diaper bag and take it with you. When you unfold it, of course, you can change the baby on it.

changing table travel pad

Now at face value, you might think the changing table and its associated pad surface is a better product. As a set it has a permanence to it, looks nicer, looks like it might be more comfortable, and so on. The travel mat looks cheap; a product for when parents are in a rush.

Recently we’ve moved Leila from a bassinet next to our bed into a crib in her nursery. This has gone over fantastically. It meant, among other things, that we decided to make more use of the changing table. We thought we could just put the baby there each time she woke up.

If you’ve been a parent you may have seen this coming all along, but the first or second time I did this I had an intense diaper to deal with. I did the best I could, but a good bit of mess got onto the changing table’s pad. I looked at it and thought, “Now I have to wash that sheet!” Then of course it became clear to me that this was going to be a regular thing.

With the travel pad, we had experienced this as well, but the beauty of it is that it is made of a material that can be cleaned with baby wipes. No need to buy multiple sets of sheets for it. No need to put it through a washing machine. It just gets cleaned, right where you are with things you have to change the baby anyway.

The comparison of the design of these products was so striking to me that it summarized everything about the baby industry. Someone probably created the changing table pad while thinking about changing tables, and how they are designed and sized. It was made to be customizable and cute. But apparently, no one thought about what happens to this product when babies are actually put onto it.

The travel pad, by contrast, was clearly designed with thoughts of parents and babies actually using it. Someone created it thinking about being with a baby in a place that doesn’t necessarily have easy access to a washing machine, and thought about what actually happens when babies get changed. Stuff gets dirty. Stuff gets full of germs. It has to be cleaned instantly, there are already wipes to clean the baby. No one keeps the baby on a changing surface for a long period of time, so it doesn’t need to have pillow-like comfort (though if you put it on top of a pillow for some reason, it basically does).

And this is good product design. It thinks beyond making something cute and comfortable, and instead thinks about what it’s actually being used to do (not cute or comfortable) and how long it’s used to do it (as little time as possible). It’s good for babies, and it’s good for the sanitary concerns, electric bills, water bills, detergent usage, and maybe even environmental consciences of parents.