Study Your Customers Like Anthropologists

Recently, we hit a snag at my company. We have long prided ourselves on our customer centricity, whereby near-constant user interactions inform our product design.

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

In the face of this interminable roadblock, I turned to history to find out how the most intuitive products are designed. Here are 3 surprising lessons that you can immediately apply within your own company.

1. See It As a Phenomenon

While data-driven decisions have its place in the executive boardroom, in most companies, the pendulum has swung too far. This was what happened at Coloplast, a market leader in ostomy bags.

Though it was highly rated for its patient centricity and runs the gamut of innovation techniques, its growth began to flatline in 2008. No degree of data wrangling and engineering tweaks could budge the bottomline. That was when the executives realized that their understanding of the customers might have fell out of alignment over the years, and 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 a business problem of stagnating sales, insomuch as it was a human experience of having to deal with the aftermath of an ostomy operation.

Similarly, when you face an intractable business challenge, rather than simply measuring the measurable, recast the situation as an essentially human phenomenon experienced by your customers, replete 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 actuality, these are at best low-resolution representations of their customer problems, and at worst, misleading indicators.

With Coloplast, this is a highly disciplined process, not unlike an anthropologist's research project. They went as far as to hire human science researchers to craft the research methodology, and dispatched them all over the world over 2 days to observe the patients -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 a period adjacent to when they interface 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 bookending a meal, where they arrange to go out with friends, all the way till they return home.

Sometimes, in order to deepen your understanding further, 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 platform shortly after onboarding, so that they can develop empathy, as well as create reports which feed back into the product.

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 informed their actions.

This is a stage where you should steep yourself into your customers' lives. From that vantage point, can you then begin to craft the customer experience from start to end with integrity and fidelity. For different customer stories, fit them into their respective storyboards, with their attendant emotional peaks and troughs.

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 hit upon hitherto 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 body types and built a special bag for each one. This new initiative has now not only exceeded its commercial goals, but is growing at a clip more rapid than the overall market.

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 for the emotional human beings that they are.

Seah Ying Cong

Old soul in an older body.

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