Case Study: The Trigger Sprayer

By Ken Miller

An opportunity to clean up with consumers.
No product delivery system has transformed the household cleaning ritual quite like the trigger sprayer. Decades ago, lifestyle shifts were emerging and leaving us with less time to clean, and placing cleaning lower on the priority ladder. The trigger sprayer promised consumers convenient cleaning power and eliminated their guilt about dedicating less time to cleaning.
Since then, the trigger spray delivery system has been adopted for more surfaces and more cleaning occasions. Today’s all-purpose cleaning formulas put demands on the package structure that the simple days of glass cleaning did not. And while there have been ergonomic improvements, I don’t think anyone has truly re-evaluated the performance of the trigger spray bottle in light of its greatly expanded use.
That’s where this column comes in. My purpose is to illustrate that every category, no matter how mature or overlooked, has a potential innovation story to tell. This is the story of the trigger sprayer.
In preparation for this piece, I conducted ethnographic research with a large group of target users in actual kitchen and bath cleaning settings. I watched how people store, handle, transport and use trigger sprayers. And, then, I showed consumers examples of various trigger sprayers in and out of the cleaning category.
If you’ve ever purchased these spray cleaners, you know that there’s a lot going on at the point of sale. And, also, not very much. Most rely on product color showing through translucent bottles to convey efficacy and purpose. Interestingly, however, virtually none of the brands differentiate their trigger spray products by form, promised functionality or ergonomics.
I say “virtually” because a few, such as Method, attempt to deviate from the norm. Unfortunately, consumers I talked to insisted that this break from the category actually hurt the product’s chances. They said things like: “Maybe soda? What the heck is it doing in the cleaning department?”
Now, that doesn’t mean that Method isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing for the folks it’s targeting. It just means that most of the consumers I talked to didn’t get it.
Method aside, there’s not a lot of conspicuous structural variation on the shelf. But that’s not to say that ergonomics and usability have been ignored. Manufacturers have to accommodate infinite hand sizes, grip preferences and usage dynamics. Though, it looks to me as if they have made some very deliberate and necessary tradeoffs in designing their trigger sprayer units.
So, how can I provide direction for improving such an iconic package structure when it must serve such a wide range of users and uses? Well, I’ll argue two points:
The design strategy for the trigger sprayer has not kept up with its ubiquitous use across multiple surfaces in multiple settings. The advent of the “all-purpose” cleaner has exacerbated this issue by expecting one bottle to perform well in all situations.
While there may be some true “friction points” to be fixed, the real opportunity may be in delighting the consumer with a usage experience that delivers beyond her expectations.
Admittedly, the women I observed say there’s nothing wrong with trigger spray bottles. But when I watched as they handled bottles throughout the experience cycle, from storage through disposal, I realized there are obvious opportunities for innovation.
The storage sinkhole
Granted, managing and organizing a multi-person household (as all of these were) is tough work. And a good look under the sink (kitchen and bath), where trigger spray products are primarily stored, bears this out. This is particularly interesting, because other storage locations and surfaces around the home show an almost compulsive urge to organize, label and contain.
So what’s going on under the sink? Well, it’s a catch-all for many kinds of cleaning and non-cleaning products in co-mingled disarray. Cleaning rags sit on top of spray bottles. Paper towel rolls meander. Spray cans, sponges, tools and even food products vie for the same real estate.
As for trigger spray bottles, their bulbous, inefficient forms don’t help matters. Much under-sink terrain is marked by wall-to-wall underbrush, with trigger heads sprouting like treetops above the fray.
The women I talked to count on the color of the spray head standing above the crowd to identify the product. But, even though the spray heads are color coded, there’s still some trial and error, as they pick up and drop the sprayers a few times until the right ones are located. See any opportunities so far?
Some of these women place products in duplicate locations. Others transport a collection of cleaning paraphernalia from central storage to the in-use location. It’s clear that, for those who transport products around the home, there is an opportunity to help them manage multiple bottles along with other cleaning supplies.
For example, women had great things to say about the new Lysol Food Service Sanitizer spray bottle. Not as a cleaner, mind you (it isn’t one). But they liked how its very thin profile made it right for easy storage and multiple-bottle, one-handed transport. Some even said that they would store a bottle with that same profile in multiple locations. Read that to mean multiple purchases and faster use-up rates!
Continuing with my observations, almost every user leaves the nozzle on the “spray” setting. It’s hardly ever rotated to “off”, and almost never used on “stream”, where that’s an option. Many weren’t clear on how to switch the nozzle, and most couldn’t see it. That’s not to say that there isn’t a need to change how the product is delivered, depending on the application.
My study of these storage and set-up steps with consumers surfaced a number of innovation opportunities:
• How can we make the spray bottle more visible, identifiable and accessible under the sink?
• What bottle forms can provide an efficient footprint with organization side-benefits?
• How can we assist in transporting multiple spray bottles, given that the trip includes other uncooperative tools such as rags, brushes and paper towel rolls? And how might we “integrate” these products to streamline storage and transport?
• Would nozzle settings that are easier to read and adjust improve product performance or safety? Could “spray”, “stream” and “off” settings be changed to better reflect in-use requirements?
There are also additional opportunities that I uncovered elsewhere in the experience cycle.
Scene of the clean
I found that the kitchen is more of a horizontal-surface cleaning environment, while the bath is more of a vertical-surface environment. This is important, because a trigger spray bottle interacts differently with the hand depending on the type of surface to be cleaned. And different trigger/grip configurations seem more conducive to each environment.
Some bottles feature a protruding flange in the back of the spray head that asks users to carry the weight on the back of the hand. Others expect the bulk of the weight to be carried in the grip, where the fingers and palm meet the bottle neck.
For instance, in spraying a horizontal surface like a kitchen counter, the nozzle must pivot down. To achieve this angle, the weight of the bottle must be swung like a pendulum, up and away. I found that weight on the back of the hand, via the flange, allows users’ fingers more freedom to pull the bottle back and point it down without straining the wrist.
In spraying a vertical surface like a shower stall in the bathroom, the opposite seems to be true. Pointing the nozzle upward requires pressure on the palm of the hand against the rear neck of the bottle. Deep contours in the forward neck seem to help consumers carry the weight on the gripping fingers best; a few users also appreciated the texture and contours on the back of some bottle necks.
But, it’s important to point out that this configuration makes spraying a horizontal surface more difficult, because fingers must not only carry and swing the weight but also activate the trigger. And, in the same way, asking the weight to be placed on the back of the hand when spraying a vertical surface appears less effective, since the palm is best suited to swing the bottle upward.  
Why is any of this important? Because a key learning is that, as a trigger sprayer configuration takes on more locations, tasks and surfaces, it may not perform optimally in each. This awareness is compounded by a few other situational differences regarding the spray action itself.
In the kitchen, it seems as if complete coverage is not critical. Product is sprayed out here and there, and the paper towel (or, rarely, a rag) is used to spread the cleaner across the surface. Multiple trigger pumps are required, and a tilted wrist required by some trigger spray configurations can make this tiresome. But, more interesting, are the short trigger strokes used to nail a nasty spot, to get into tight spots, or to avoid spots that shouldn’t be sprayed (wood, outlets, etc.). Need for control is the insight here.
In the bathroom, complete coverage is mission-critical. Large vertical surfaces require exhaustive pumping. Full coverage is important, because higher surfaces may never be scrubbed, and contact with the cleaner may be all the cleaning power they ever get. Some users count on gravity to pull the product down the wall, cleaning as it goes. All this means lots of trigger action, and the need to disperse product both close-in and at a distance.
Multiple materials in the bathroom create additional challenges. Users don’t want cleaners to touch wallpaper or other finishes. They also need to scrub tricky objects like door tracks, handles, towel bars and faucets. What do they do? They spray the rag or towel, rather than the object. That way, the cleaner goes exactly where it’s needed.
A few more words about user differences: Some keep two fingers on the trigger, while others only one. This seems to depend on several factors including hand size; dispersion and depth of the finger contours on the neck; where the hand rests on the neck and trigger head; what kind of surface it is, etc.
I don’t want to get any deeper on ergonomics, but these issues support the contention that manufacturers have their hands full dealing with the vast differences in anatomy and practice among consumers.
So, what additional innovation opportunities surfaced from the cleaning behavior I witnessed?
How can trigger spray bottle configurations more comfortably address both vertical and horizontal surfaces? Could gripping and weight-bearing positions be more flexible, or even adjustable?
Should we develop unique trigger sprayer structures for kitchen and bath? Would that be an easier way for consumers to think about vertical versus horizontal cleaning?
Could simple adjustments to the trigger allow more control across varying surfaces and rituals, including close spot treatments, total vs. intermittent coverage, rag spraying, reaching high spots, avoiding nearby surfaces, etc. And what can be done about the incessant and tiresome pumping?
Focus on what matters
To some, this article might sound like an expose of all things wrong with trigger spray bottles. But, really, it’s just an attempt to illustrate one way of exploring and defining a package innovation opportunity.
That said, how can we set priorities among the multiple innovation platforms we’ve identified? Let’s evaluate them along two dimensions:
How highly would consumers value the solutions to the above opportunities? Or, how critical is the need represented by each?
How large is the perceptual and/or functional gap represented by each opportunity? In other words, how well do existing products in the market perform against the opportunities?
Typically, the package innovation team would rank the key insights by expected consumer value, and then determine how well each of these are addressed by existing products. Those insights that are high on value and show large performance gaps would become the most urgent innovation platforms.
Coming out of this work, I would argue that there are three solid innovation platforms worth pursuing in concept development:
1. Consider improving bottle storage and access. Make the bottles easy to find, easy to grab and easy to transport with other cleaning supplies.
2. Explore an “adjustable” grip and spray configuration that is comfortable for a multitude of locations and surfaces.
3. Investigate simple, intuitive spray adjustments to accommodate various surface requirements throughout the household.
I know what you’re thinking. What about cost? What about manufacturing constraints? Well, as part of any innovation methodology, I would urge you to collect cross-functional information on internal capabilities and constraints prior to launching into concept development. This structured and deliberate exercise will establish parameters for the project, and ensure that proposed concepts are both on-strategy and actionable.
Successful innovation takes place when a number of things happen. Chief among them is that the chosen innovation methodology must do its job to focus, inspire and guide concept development. In this way, your team members can reach consensus on what’s truly important to consumers, and how that insight can be molded into benefits that transform the usage experience. In short, it should be an effective “trigger” for innovation!
The author, Ken Miller, runs the Ken Miller Group, which works with consumer products companies to help focus, guide and inspire their new product and package development efforts. The KMG methodology leverages input from all stakeholders to drive team consensus on a strategic direction for development. Contact Ken at or visit
Welcome to a new column
In this issue, we're initiating a new column by Ken Miller called Insight for Innovation*. Every so often, Ken will investigate consumers' perspectives on package structures in various categories. In an exciting first for this (or perhaps any) publication, Ken will interact directly with target consumers to uncover unrecognized needs and opportunities and then propose a design direction for package innovation. For this column, Ken worked with Fieldwork Research to recruit several target consumers and conduct in-home ethnographic observations of true cleaning occasions.
We don't intend this to be a comprehensive assessment of a given category. Instead, our goal for this new column is simply to illustrate how innovation tools can identify opportunities that help focus your package development activities.
We hope you find this and future columns to be informative. If you'd like to suggest a product category for future exploration, please e-mail our senior editor Pauline Hammerbeck at .
Where to go for more information...
• Research services. At Fieldwork Research, please contact Sarah Kotva at 312.285.2048 or, or visit
*Insight for Innovation is a service mark of Ken Miller Group.