I am nothing if not a consumerist. Meaning, I am constantly impressing upon companies I work with to make sure they have a deep and empathic understanding of their customers…past, present, and future. It’s especially critical if the intent is to devise new and innovative ways to offer differentiating and inimitable value to their customers’ experience.
Generally speaking, most companies understand the importance of getting out and rubbing elbows with customers to conduct the kind of ethnographic research that involves watching (and sometimes interacting with) customers in their user habitat. The challenge is almost always turning their observations into actionable insights. Some organizations are better than others at it, of course, and some are masters at it, but it is always a challenge.
If you follow my more recent work (i.e. Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking) you know that I’m fascinated by all things neuroscientific. And in the last decade, neuroscience has really come to the fore as a discipline that can help address the customer insight challenge.
For example, we’ve known for a long time that consumers cannot express what they really want in ways that are particularly useful to those searching for value-producing insights, particularly if they are being asked the specific question of what they want. (We’ve all heard the old Henry Ford quote about “a faster horse” had he asked people what they wanted.)
What we now know is that when it comes to the kind of research that can lead to competitive advantage in the form of new and differentiating value, the key is to do it in the context of a hypothesis, or set of hypotheses, in much the same way a scientist does.
This may seem simple, obvious or even second-nature to you, but you would be surprised at just how foreign a concept this is for many organizations.
What the best designers (and of course scientists) know is this:
Our world is far too complicated to simply go out and try to observe it with a tabula rasa mindset. There’s simply too much data and too many stimuli out there to sally forth with a blank slate, hoping and praying for some miracle of serendipity to appear and point us in the right direction.
Still, I’m consistently running up against that very mindset, ala “we’re just going out to observe our users, and we’ll figure it out from there.” It’s a fool’s errand, and in over a quarter decade of working with a wide variety of organizations, I’ve never seen it produce anything truly valuable or useful to crafting a unique strategy of any kind (product, service, etc).
To illustrate, suppose I asked you to take a nice long look around you, then close your eyes, and write down everything within view. To do a truly thorough job, even if you could remember everything, would probably take you weeks, there’s that much stuff around you. At the end of that effort, you’d be left with a big “so what?” having learned nothing new or insightful.
Now, you might produce some sort of shorthand description that made sense of it all. But in so doing, you would consciously and subjectively select and filter the things you’re including in your summary. You would add subtle qualitative conclusions, such as:
“It’s a nice large open floor plan with modular seating, lots of natural lighting, brightly colored walls, modern furniture, and state-of-the-art technology, inhabited by energetic professionals all fully engaged in their work.”
Neuroscience tells us that we are naturally hard-wired to do exactly this, to focus on some things, and not others, and inject our personal point of view. And for this reason, I firmly believe that we should be explicit about what we’re looking for, before we actually begin looking.
You must have a hypothesis about what the targets of your investigation should be before you go into the field, because it will frame what you should pay attention to and what you can ignore.
If you aren’t explicit and don’t have a hypothesis, your hardwiring will take over, causing you to pay attention to certain things without ever knowing why certain things drew your attention and others didn’t. You will fool yourself into thinking that you were paying attention to everything, but the reality is that you were only paying attention to a small part of the whole.
And if you do that, the result will be that you will never know, or be able to figure out, what you might have missed that carried with it the kind of insight that could spark an altogether new, different, and better way of doing things with and for customers.