Ultralights on the Mind

Manufacturers Discuss the Most Important Factors to You & Your Clients

If seating & mobility could be said to have a “sexy” product segment, it would surely be ultralightweight manual chairs. Today’s K0005s still roll, of course, but they also flaunt — those colors! Those sleek lines! Those curves! That profile!

Ultralightweight users, of course, have largely created that image and identity. Typically young and certainly young at heart, they’ve built not just a strong and vocal community, but an intelligent, engaged and media-savvy culture that knows what it wants, clearly expresses those desires, and accepts no boundaries.

Manufacturers of ultralightweight chairs, therefore, have tall orders, indeed — especially because they are not just designing and engineering technology for consumers, but also for funding sources and clinicians. Today’s payors are wringing every last ounce of use and durability from each ultralight they buy; physical and occupational therapists want chairs that can be adjusted to maximize function and clinical benefits while fitting seamlessly into multiple environments such as home, office, school and car.

So what factors are most important right now to consumers who use ultralightweight chairs? How about to the clinicians and providers who choose the equipment, fine-tune the fit and make adjustments over the chair’s lifespan?

We asked ultralightweight chair manufacturers what they’re hearing from their customers (you) and their customers’ customers (consumers).

Manufacturer representatives answering our survey were:

  • Jeff Adams, president/CEO, Icon Wheelchairs.
  • Josh Anderson, VP of marketing, TiLite.
  • Sarah Brown, product manager, Invacare Corp.
  • Brent Hatch, director of product manager — adult manual, Sunrise Medical.
  • Megan Kutch, general manager, Quantum applications & clinical development, Quantum Rehab.
  • Bill Lasher, owner, Lasher Sport.

Aesthetics & Appearance

Our first question: On a scale of 1 to 7 — with 1 defined as “Not at all important” and 7 defined as “Extremely important” — how important are an ultralight’s aesthetics and appearance to clinicians and providers? How important are aesthetics are to consumers?

The scores:
For clinicians & providers: 4.83 out of 7.0.
For consumers: 6.67 out of 7.0.

Of the seven different factors we asked participants to rate, this one produced the largest gap between industry professionals — who likely are more concerned with clinical or funding factors — and consumers, who see their chairs’ style and good looks as extensions of themselves.

Aesthetics received the lowest professional score, while it tied for second as the most important factor for consumers.

Weight of the Chair

Question 2: On that same 1- to 7-point scale, with 7 being the highest possible score, how important is an ultralight’s weight?

Not surprisingly for this particular product segment, manufacturers agreed that a chair’s weight is very important to all stakeholders. It rated a 6.0 for professionals and a 6.67 for consumers — tied for second among the highest consumer scores given.

Performance & Ride

Mobility system weight has always been important to users who propel themselves over multiple types of terrain all day, leading to the classic “titanium or aluminum?” clash in years past.

As manufacturers have refined and evolved the ways in which they work with various materials, however, the question of weight is beginning to be replaced with a more important one:

How important is a chair’s performance and ride?

Very important, said respondents, who gave this factor a professional score of 6.17, and a consumer score of 6.83, the highest-rated factor in our list.

Durability & Lifespan

Both industry professionals and consumers also believe a chair’s durability and overall lifespan are extremely important, manufacturers said — no doubt refl ecting that consumers want to be able to rely on their chairs without having to constantly worry about dependability.

Clinicians and providers’ score: 6.67, the highest average among all the factors we listed. For consumers, a score was just a little lower: 6.5 out of 7.

Adjustability & Growability

Here was another distinctive divide between professionals and consumers. Providers and clinicians are charged with justifying replacement chairs to funding sources, as well as making sure chairs can be adjusted to provide customized fits for clients whose conditions may change within the chair’s reasonable useful lifetime.

Consumers may be a bit less aware of such needs, which possibly accounted for the disparity between scores.

Consumers’ score was 5.0 out of 7, but clinicians and providers’ score was 6.5.

Transportability & Ease of Disassembly

Manufacturers indicated that transportation issues — whether the ultralight has a rigid design or a folding one — were relatively less important to clinicians and providers, compared to the rest of the factors on our list. The score for professionals was 5.17, the second lowest for any factor.

Manufacturers indicated, however, that getting a chair in and out of the back seat or trunk of a car was a bigger concern among consumers; their score was 6.17.

Cost of the Chair

Finally, we asked how important the cost of the ultralight is. The score for professionals was 5.5. The score for consumers was even lower: 5.0. Combined, the “price point” score was lowest among the seven factors surveyed and suggested that clinicians, providers and consumers are on the same page on the subject.

That’s an interesting idea, given the falling reimbursements that providers are receiving from funding sources, and given the recent worldwide recession that has caused discretionary income to plummet for many consumers. So what does the relative lack of interest in price point mean for this segment?

Perhaps that clinicians are adamant about the many clinical and functional benefits ultralight chairs offer?

Perhaps that providers are working hard to document and justify ultralights for appropriate consumers, and succeeding most of the time? Perhaps that consumers concerned about their long-term health and independence are insisting on high-quality equipment?

Final Scores

Combining the two sets of scores — one regarding clinicians and providers, the other regarding consumers’ perspectives — resulted in this final scorecard:

  • Durability & lifespan of chair: 13.17 out of a possible 14
  • Performance & ride: 13.0
  • Light weight: 12.67
  • Aesthetics & appearance: 11.5 (tie)
  • Adjustability/growability: 11.5 (tie)
  • Transportability & ease of disassembly: 11.34
  • Price point: 10.5

Continual product evolution makes this segment exciting for consumers who have more choices. Advances in the use of materials, frame design and other construction opportunities are good news for clinicians and providers, who are seeking mobility solutions that fit their clients’ lifestyle and seating needs as closely as possible.

Manufacturers were also asked how likely it was for funding sources to become more aware of the many benefits that ultralight chairs offer — and most answered this was likely to happen or might happen. They were, however, less optimistic that the knowledge would drive payors to increase funding for ultralights.

But asked if significant percentages of consumers would be more willing in the future to pay out of pocket to own an ultralight, the score was higher: 4.2 out of a possible 5.0 score — suggesting that manufacturers believe this group of end users would find a way to make sure they had the best equipment, even if funding sources wouldn’t help out.

Would we really expect anything less out of this passionate, intelligent group of consumers?

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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