Product Managers Deal With The Challenge Of Cup Holders

Can a car ever have too many cup holders?
Can a car ever have too many cup holders?
Image Credit: Michael Sheehan

So if you were a product manager who was in charge of an automobile, what do you think that your #1 concern would be? Do you think that your customers would care most about how fast your car could go? How about how many doors it has or the size of its tires? Could it be the sound system or the built-in navigation system? What’s very interesting is that although all of these items may be important to your car buying customer, they may not be the one thing that will cause them to buy or not buy your car. What could that one thing be you ask? How about cupholders?

The Thing About Cup Holders

So here’s the thing about cup holders, there are a couple of things that have to go into their basic design that should be a part of any product development definition. One, of course, is how many cup holders a car has. However, there is another point that is almost as important as the first: how big of a cup can a holder support? You would think that this would be a fairly simple question to answer. Go to your kitchen, grab a bunch of glasses and take them to the car cup holder designers and tell them that they need to support these sizes. However, in our mobile world, we don’t often bring glasses from home into our cars. Instead, we go out, get fast food that comes with a drink, and then we place those fast food cups into our cup holders. This is where things can get tricky.

Just exactly how big is a fast food drink? The answer, it turns out, is that these drinks can be quite large. What makes things even more difficult is that many car firms use international design teams to create their cars. This means that the environment that the designers live in may not be the same as the environment that the cars will be sold into. The monster of all such cups would probably be 7-11’s Big Gulp cup. However, there are many other contenders. The designers have to come up with a variety of ways to make sure that cups of all sizes stay securely in the cup holder. In order to ensure that a car’s cup holders will work with the variety of cups that are available, it is often necessary to go out and collect sample cups. This can mean making a run to Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-11 stores. Providing these cups to the cup holder designers is critical so that they’ll understand what they are working with no matter where in the world they live.

In order to get a potential customer to buy your car, you are going to have to make sure that you’ve met all of their needs. This means that you’ll have to take care of their cup holder needs also. This means providing lots of cup holders. This means providing big cup holders and cup holders that come in all shapes and sizes. So which car maker is currently in the lead when it comes to cup holders? Somewhat surprisingly, the answer turns out to be Subaru. The Subaru Ascent SUV currently has 19 cup holders in it. Considering that the Ascent can carry up to 8 people, that means that there are 2.375 cup holders per person when the car is fully loaded. Now that’s something that could go onto a product manager resume. Subaru is offering more cup holders than Volkswagen is. The largest number of cup holders that you can get in a Volkswagen is 17. Customers like their cup holders because they can be used for things besides holding drinks. The cup holders can be used to hold small objects and in a pinch, they can also be used to hold french fries.

The Future Of Cup Holders

Ok, so if we can all admit just exactly how important cup holders have become in our lives, then perhaps we can take a closer look at them. The product managers at fast food locations certainly have been. Once they realized exactly what their fast food customers were doing with the drinks that they were buying from them, placing them in cup holders, they changed the shape of their cups. Over at 7-11 they have gone ahead and tapered the bottom of the Big Gulp cup so that it will fit into most cup holders. Chrysler ran into a problem after they bought Fiat. The Fiat designers were located in Italy and had no idea how big U.S. cups could be. In order to solve this problem, Chrysler created a 3D printed Big Gulp clone that the Fiat designers could use to make sure that the cup holders in their cars would work with U.S. cups.

The Fiat product managers have learned their lesson when it comes to cup holders. These days in the Fiat design labs you can find 3D printed cups that represent small coffees that are found in emerging markets as well as the 32 oz cups offered by Burger King. Fiat has taking their cup holder designs to the next level. They are now making them deeper. Additionally, they are making them multi-use – not just for holding cups. This race is not over yet. Customers are starting to use more and more large thermoses and large tumblers such as the popular 30 oz Yeti model. The result is that car product managers are starting to have to introduce cup holders with more volume.

Very few customers realize just exactly how much engineering and technology go into creating the cup holders that are found in cars. An example of this innovation can be seen in a patent that the Ford motor company just got for a gyroscopic cup holder that will keep a cup upright no matter if the vehicle is accelerating, breaking, or going up a steep hill. Some futuristic cup holders have LEDs and feature heaters and coolers to keep your drink at the temperature that you want it to be. As we move into the era of self-driving cars, it is expected that cup holders will become even more important. Cup holders are believed to have first shown up in cars back in 1984. Even high end production sport cars have finally given in and now come with cup holders. For a number of years, Mercedes believed that people should only drink beverages at home. However, over time, even they were forced to give in and start offering cup holders in their cars.

What All Of This Means For You

When customers look at cars that they might consider buying, they use a number of different criteria to decide which car best meets their needs. It turns out that one of the smaller but important characteristics that they use has to do with the car’s cup holders. The car has to have enough cup holders to meet their needs and the individual cup holders have to be designed to handle what they’ll be putting in them.

When product managers are using their product manager job description to decide how best to design the cup holders that are going to be in their cars, they need to determine what customers are going to be putting in them. They could use cups that they gathered from their homes. However, a better thing to would be to get the fast food beverages that we all seem to get and then use our cup holders to carry around. In the world of fast food, it turns out that 7-11’s Big Gulp is the largest cup currently out there. This means that car cup holder designers need to make sure that their cup holders can hold these cups. Car product managers are adding more and more cup holders to their cars. The currently leader has 19 cup holders in a single car. This means that every person in that car has over 2 cup holders available to them. Fast food restaurants have realized how important cup holders are and they have redesigned their cups to fit into most cup holders. A great deal of engineering innovation has been going into designing cup holders that will meet future customer needs. Ultimately every car manufacturer has to add cup holders to their cars because their customers are asking for them.

As product managers what we need to realize that how our customers view our product may be different than how we view our product. When you are responsible for a product that is as complex as a car, you’d think that there would be a number of clear factors that would attract customers to your product. You might not realize just how important cup holders are. However, once you realized this you’d need to take steps to make sure that your car met your customer’s every cup holder need. We can all learn from car product managers that understanding what drives our customers is the key to best meeting their needs.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that there is an upper limit on the number of cup holders that can be placed in a single car?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Every product manager job is different. Some are easy and some are hard. Right now, being the product manager at Boeing who is responsible for the 737 MAX jet would defiantly fall into the difficult category. The reason that this would be such a hard job to have right now is because this airplane has experiences a set of disastrous crashes. In October, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia. It was the first fatal accident involving a 737 Max. 189 people died. This was followed in March when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, involving the same Max jet model, also crashed minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board. How can product manager come back from product setbacks like this?