Customers Are Humans

Recently, we hit a snag at my company. We have long prided ourselves on being customer centric, where we constantly interact with our users.

Yet, in our latest product line, regardless of how many user interviews we conducted, we could not finalize the product design. It was a product designers' version of the writer's block.

This roadblock triggered me to study how some of the most successful companies in the world come up with innovative designs. Here are 3 surprising lessons that you can immediately start applying within your own company.

1. See It As a Phenomenon

While being data-driven has its merits, most companies take it too far. This was exactly the case at Coloplast, a market leader in producing ostomy bags, used by patients of ostomy operations.

Though it was highly rated for its customer service, its growth began to flatline in 2008. Despite constant refinement of the product, its growth started flatlining. That was when the executives realized that their understanding of the customers might have fell out of alignment over the years. They therefore promptly commissioned an intensive re-study of their customers.

One of the first things they did was to reframe the problem they were trying to solve. It was not simply a business problem of stagnating sales, but rather a human experience of having to deal with the aftermath of a life-altering operation.

Similarly, when you face an intractable business challenge, rather than simply measuring the measurable, recast the situation as a human phenomenon experienced by your customers, complete with the messiness of emotions, human errors and irrationality. In other words, bring your customers from the abstract into the flesh.

2. Study The Patient

The next phase is where the meat of execution lies -data collection. Too many corporations pass off focus groups and mass surveys as 'customer interaction', when in reality, these are at best low-resolution representations of customers' problems, and at worst, misleading indicators.

With Coloplast, this is a highly disciplined process, similar to an anthropologist's research project. They hired human science researchers to craft the research methodology, and dispatched them all over the world over 2 days to observe the patients in various situations-be it at home, at work, with their families and friends and most vitally, when overcoming their anxiety over their condition.

In preparation for your data collection process, it is important that you set out with clear goals. Think through clearly on what questions you want to be answered about the phenomenon. In Coloplast's case, some questions include:

  • How does their condition affect the patients' lives?
  • What are the patients' care routines?
  • How do they feel about their condition?

Next, get in touch with your core group of users, and request permission to observe them during a relevant bracket of their lives. This would usually be the periods bookending their interaction with your product, or when they experience most acutely the emotions surrounding the problem your business is solving.

For instance, if you are a restaurant, the relevant bracket might be the hours before and after a meal, from the time they arrange to go out, all the way till their trip home.

Sometimes, in order to deepen your understanding, you can even become your customer. Go through the process that your customers go through, and take notes of key emotional moments. Airbnb is famous for paying new hires to take 2-week stays via their own website shortly after joining the company, so as to experience the customer's journey.

3. Dice It and Storyboard It

The outcome of the data collection process is reams and reams of raw information about your customers, in the form of diaries, photographs, videos and audio. This is where the sense-making will begin to take shape.

Begin structuring the data by grouping the phenomenon by general themes. In the case of Coloplast, they congregate into themes such as hygiene at work, strategies to fit into society, so on and so forth.

This will set the stage for the dots to connect and patterns to emerge. One key to discerning patterns is to dig deep into the root causes for your customers' behaviour. Keep peeling off the layers until you have hit upon the underlying habits and beliefs that inform their actions.

This is a stage where you should steep yourself in your customers' lives. From that vantage point, you can then craft the customer experience from start to end with integrity and fidelity.

Airbnb is once again an advocate of this methodology. They storyboard several different user stories, beginning from the protagonist hearing about them at a cocktail party, to the booking, the travel, the actual stay and eventually them telling another friend about it. They also take pains to include pivotal emotional moments, such as the 'moment of truth', where the guest sees the host accomodation for the first time, and is deciding if Airbnb is worth trusting the next time.

It is only after you have storyboarded will you discover previously unknown insights about your customers. For Coloplast, they realize that the myriad body types of their users actually play a huge role in the efficacy of their bags, though most patients simply accept misfit as a fact, due to their lowered self-esteem. Acting upon that insight, they categorized the various body types and built a special bag for each one. Shortly after rolling out this initiative, growth of ostomy bag was re-ignited.

This technique of studying your customers like anthropologists is a stark departure from the quantitative methodologies that prevail at most companies, and it is certainly not a quick win. However, it is one of the most profound tools at your disposal to fundamentally increase your value proposition, for you are treating your customers not as abstractions and numbers, but as the emotional human beings whom they are.

Seah Ying Cong

Old soul in an older body.

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