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Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World by Brandon Schauer, Todd Wilkens, Peter Merholz, David Verba

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Chapter 4. Capturing Complexity, Building Empathy

The success of experience-focused products is contingent on everyone sharing an understanding of users and a vision for the experience, because so many people play a role in delivering that experience.

Creating engaging user experiences requires a solid understanding of the people you want to serve, which inevitably means doing research. Research is a reliable way to gain insight and deal with uncertainty, but to incorporate the ideas from Chapter 3 you may need to reconsider how you think about research. In our experience, a lot of research does nothing but keep research staff busy; however, well-executed research can transform your organization’s understanding of its customers, and help your team create compelling experiences.

In this chapter, we’ll share what we’ve learned about how successful, experience-focused companies approach their research efforts. We’ve already spent a lot of time discussing empathy and the importance of understanding the complexity of your customers’ lives. Now, we’ll look at some of the methods we use to capture that complexity. We’ll also talk about some of the mistakes organizations make with research, and indicators that your research methods could use fine-tuning. Finally, we’ll share principles and strategies for successful research.

Of course, every organization has its own needs and idiosyncrasies, so it’s impossible to offer step-by-step instructions, but Adaptive Path’s strategies have proved effective for our clients and us, even in an increasingly ambiguous market.

Why Research Is Essential

Research for product and service design is about two things: generating ideas and evaluating ideas. It’s about answering fundamental questions such as: What should we make? How should it work? Why should people care? This is even true once you have tangible designs, prototypes, or completed products and services. Research will augment your work by giving you insight into customers’ lives, and helping you develop empathy for them.

Businesses today may use several different types of research:

Evaluative research is a fairly well-understood endeavor, with established disciplines such as human factors, ergonomics, usability, and the like. These fields have developed out of—and have incorporated—a great deal of social and medical science. Their efficacy has been proven over and over because organizations have been doing acceptance tests, usability tests, and market tests for a long time.

Generative research deserves attention because it’s a fairly fuzzy endeavor with few clear disciplinary origins. Perhaps this is best indicated by the fact that no one can even agree about what to call it. Your organization probably does some form of “market research” or “user research” as part of its design and development process. But what do these terms mean?

Market research has a fairly established set of techniques (surveys, focus groups, market segmentation), but tends to focus more on what to say than on how a product should work. This can lead to problems, which we’ll discuss in more detail later in this chapter.

User research, a term that came out of the world of software and internet applications, is even less clear. It can include anything from observation and interviewing to simply applying evaluative usability techniques at an earlier stage in the process—for example, evaluating earlier versions of a product or offerings from competitors. In our experience, user research has a tendency to be more of the latter than the former.

More recently, design schools and some organizations are championing the term “design research” instead of “user research” or “market research.” This term is extremely promising for those of us who are concerned with establishing effective research approaches for design and development. It pushes us out of the purely digital world, and focuses us on the ultimate outcome and measure for research efforts—creating successful products and services. We’ve been using the term “design research” at Adaptive Path, and will use it as our preferred term for the rest of the book.

Regardless of what you call it, generating ideas for new products and services is fundamentally important to the success of organizations. But keep in mind that research for product and service design isn’t about proving theorems or hypotheses. In fact, it’s seldom about proving anything. Instead, design research helps establish the constraints and opportunities that make great design possible. Together, the insight and empathy resulting from research provide both a wellspring for ideas and criteria for evaluating those ideas.

Of course, you eventually need to evaluate and develop ideas so they can become real offerings. The methods and strategies we discuss throughout this chapter are applicable for both evaluative and generative research.

Capturing Complexity with Qualitative Research

Chapter 3 made a strong case for the importance of addressing emotion, culture, meaning, and context when we try to understand our customers. When our models of human behavior and motivation are simple, we can get by using primarily quantitative methods like surveys and statistics for research. But once we acknowledge and embrace the complexity of our customers’ lives, we need a way to make sense of those intricacies and a means of interpreting the numbers. This isn’t a book about research methods, but rather the methodological approaches that organizations use that are critical to the way they understand their customers. So, it’s worth taking a moment to review some of the high-level points related to different styles of research.

Quantitative research is useful for understanding trends and getting a sense of what is going on. Some quantitative methods can also give you insight into how things are happening, but they usually don’t tell you why. That’s because in order to interpret numbers, you need a sense of the mechanisms at play. Otherwise there’s no way to know whether a change in a certain number is good, bad, interesting, or trivial.

You can obtain the necessary information through qualitative and contextual research methods, which are specifically geared toward uncovering mechanisms and revealing why something is happening. The range of these qualitative and contextual methods is vast, but there are some commonalities among the techniques that can help give a sense of what they are all about. As it turns out, many of these methods are also well-suited to building empathy.

Qualitative research, put most simply, is concerned with the qualities of an experience, situation, set of behaviors, and so on, rather than the quantitatively measurable aspects. It focuses on process rather than outcomes—the how and why as opposed to the what, where, and when. Because of the focus on how and why questions, qualitative researchers have to spend a lot of time talking to people. Nearly all forms of qualitative research involve some kind of interviewing. These interviews aren’t heavily scripted in an attempt to prove hypotheses by exactly replicating questions and activities across subjects. Rather, they are designed to elicit stories about experiences by responding to what participants say and allowing the conversation to go in unexpected directions. It is more like facilitated storytelling than surveying.

Many qualitative methods are also contextual, meaning that the differences between the spaces and situations in which people live, work, and play are of primary importance. This kind of research is highly inductive—researchers build concepts, hypotheses, and models from the details they uncover in the midst of the research activity. Because it is so inductive, qualitative research is much better at uncovering the unexpected than quantitative approaches. These unexpected discoveries can become a wellspring for original ideas.

For the BankCo project we mentioned in Chapter 3, we began the research expecting to understand the functional and intellectual challenges people have when choosing financial products and services. What surprised us was the role that emotion played in these decisions. People weren’t choosing a bank or a specific financial product based on the best fees and rates, but on softer qualities of trust and comfort. This realization led to a set of design recommendations that addressed a potential customer’s emotional requirements. These included a streamlined transition between different contact channels (such as email, telephone, branch) so that customers could easily engage in the ways in which they were most comfortable as well as marketing copy that share real-life customer stories.

A subtle and seldom-discussed advantage of qualitative and contextual methods is how they support organizations in developing empathy. Going into people’s homes and businesses to talk with them about their behaviors can’t help but lead to some connection and understanding of the situation they’re in. Making these customers real to the researchers and organization is the first step in developing that connection.

Recently, we’ve seen a general rise in the popularity and discussion of qualitative methods in design organizations. Terms like interview, observation, field research, contextual inquiry, and ethnography are becoming much more common. It’s become standard practice at Adaptive Path to do some qualitative research on nearly every project. Our projects range from internet start-ups to large multi-channel media companies, from non-profits to financial institutions, and from mobile devices to retail spaces. All have benefited from a qualitative approach. This trend is a testament to the importance companies are placing on taking a more holistic, complex, and realistic view of people. It’s also evidence for the growing acceptance of culture and context as fundamental to crafting effective customer experiences.

Using Ethnography as a Research Tool

There is no best way to do qualitative research; all of the techniques have their strengths. Most often, the nature of the research question or the situation under study makes one approach more appropriate than another. Still, for many people, the new prominence of qualitative research is closely tied to a specific methodology known as ethnography. Looking at this method in detail can shed light on the use of qualitative approaches in general.

Ethnography is a word you may have heard a lot recently. It’s certainly been getting some press. BusinessWeek, in particular, has become a champion of ethnography.[20] In 2006 alone, the magazine published over 15 articles and online posts about the power of ethnography. But what is it, and why are people so excited about it?

Ethnography is a qualitative approach to research focused on gaining a deep understanding of people. It generally involves going into the homes or businesses of the people under study and spending time observing and talking to them. Ethnography differs from other qualitative approaches such as interviews and focus groups in a few important ways. First, it has a strong focus on going out into “the field.” Second, because of its roots in anthropology, formally trained ethnographers use social science theory and are particularly focused on cultural and contextual issues. Finally, it delves deeply into study subjects’ lives. Academic ethnographers often spend years in their field sites uncovering the subtle details of social and cultural relations and rituals. Thus, ethnography can provide a more realistic view of people, especially with regard to the emotional, contextual, and cultural aspects of their lives.

Of course, ethnography isn’t right for every organization or project. It’s the most extreme version of the qualitative and contextual methods. True ethnography is quite difficult and requires a good bit of training. It’s also incredibly resource and time intensive. In the right situation, it can provide enormous insights that may produce a formidable competitive advantage. But ethnography is overkill for many projects. Even if you do need deep insights, simply hiring ethnographers won’t solve your problems. Making effective use of ethnography or other qualitative methods also requires a certain amount of organizational readiness.

Where Organizations Go Wrong

Before we offer our suggestions for doing effective research that captures complexity and develops empathy, let’s look at where organizations go wrong. Below are some common symptoms we’ve come to associate with organizations whose research efforts aren’t as effective as they might be. See if you recognize any of these scenarios.

You might be doing research poorly if:

  • You keep making the same mistakes with your customers.

  • The functionality or usability of your product is excellent, but sales and usage are low.

  • Your products are improved but seldom innovated.

  • You have a shelf of reports, and no one knows what’s in them.

  • Your research team is busy and spending money, but your products don’t seem to be getting any more successful.

  • The marketing and positioning of products is great but ultimately fail to deliver.

Problems like these tend to result from one or two common faults. Some research fails because the methods aren’t appropriate for addressing holistic experiences. Just as often, research fails due to organizational issues; perhaps others in the organization don’t see its value or its relevance, or simply don’t know how to use it.

Research in Isolation

In many organizations, research is conducted by a department or group that is removed from the rest of the design and development process, both physically and organizationally (Figure 4-1).

How research works in most organizations.
Figure 4-1. How research works in most organizations.

This means that most of the insights are trapped in the research group. If researchers are the only people talking to your customers, the rest of your organization has little opportunity to develop honest empathy. Many research teams receive a set of requirements, go do the research, and then pass the findings back over a figurative (or sometimes actual) wall, in the form of research reports and PowerPoint presentations. Designers, developers, and management read these once, and then file them away on a shelf or in a folder on their computer. This leads us to a second common mistake.

Reports, Where Good Insights Go to Die

Years of experience working on research-intensive design projects have taught the team at Adaptive Path that research reports are generally ineffectual, especially as the sole repository for research. There are lots of reasons why, but it’s often simply because the report is so thick you could use it as a doorstop.

WILKENS’ LAW: The effectiveness of a research report is inversely proportional to the thickness of its binding.

-Todd Wilkens

This is why organizations accrue shelves of reports that no one ever uses. Many researchers come from academic or business fields where research is a matter of proving or defending something; hence, the more evidence and detail, the better. But the end result of design research should be fundamentally different from academic research. Design research needs to inspire and indicate a clear direction. It needs to be engaging and powerful. And this isn’t just about insights; research should promote empathy as well. Most reports and presentations aren’t effective ways to help others develop empathy.

Market Research versus Design Research

Many organizations make another mistake in the way they approach marketing and design. In theory, market research is simply research focused on understanding a market or potential market. All organizations do it, and it makes a lot of sense that they would. But, as we discussed earlier, the field of marketing has mostly become the field of marketing messages. It’s focused almost exclusively on discovering the stories and ideas that resonate with people. It sounds sophisticated and postmodern to say that companies are in the business of selling the idea of things rather than the things themselves, and it’s true that even great products can fail without good marketing and advertising. At the end of the day, however, most organizations are making and selling real products and services.

Although we’ve spent a lot of time talking about intangibles such as meaning and emotion, your organization creates and provides tangible offerings. Your customers have a relationship to those products and services that is both tangible and intangible. Just as human factors, ergonomics, and other disciplines have focused too much on the tangible, marketing tends to focus too much on the intangible. There’s clearly a message and story associated with your offering. But, as Marshall McLuhan reminded us, the medium (the experience, product, or service) is a fundamental part of the message. It’s not just about telling a better or more persuasive story, but also about creating better products and services. Research for the design of products and services is a fundamentally different process than research for messages.

Of course, we don’t mean to disparage marketing. On the contrary, we want to help organizations to take advantage of the strengths of traditional marketing research, but also to account for its limitations. Truly effective customer research takes both a traditional marketing approach and a design approach.

Making Research an Organizational Competency

We’ve found two guiding principles that make research as effective as possible in organizations. Research is successful when:

  • It’s treated as an organizational competency.

  • Research outcomes are both actionable and durable.

When you want to provide a cohesive experience, research must be an organizational competency rather than the job of one person, group, or department. After all, researchers don’t actually make products and services; whole organizations do. It’s vital to get research insights out of the research department or group and into the organization at large. The success of experience-focused products is contingent on everyone sharing an understanding of users and a vision for the experience, because so many people play a role in delivering that experience. Your business analysts, customer support teams, and retail sales folks should have as much understanding of your customers as your researchers and designers.

Truly effective research work exhibits two traits: it’s actionable and durable. Actionable research has clear implications for design, development, marketing, and so on. This ensures that research can influence the work done by these groups. Research that isn’t actionable won’t have much impact on the products and services being developed. Durable research offers insights that last beyond the research-findings meeting. Otherwise, companies end up having to learn the same things about their customers over and over.

Adaptive Path uses—and recommends—the following strategies to produce actionable, durable results.

Mix Methods

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about new methods, but we don’t mean to say that more traditional and quantitative approaches are unhelpful. What we’re saying is that these approaches alone are insufficient. But it is equally true that qualitative methods are insufficient on their own. Taking a mixed method approach is one of the best strategies for ensuring success.

Think of it this way: when you’re investing, diversification is an excellent strategy for dealing with the complexities and corresponding uncertainties of the market. The same is true of research. Investing time and resources in a few different approaches will help you identify the important truths of your customers’ lives, and help assure you that your organization is on track.

For example, melding market segmentation with interviews and field research can create a more complete picture of your customers. Many organizations have market segmentations based on quantitative analysis of survey data, whether done in-house or purchased from a research firm. These segments generally capture demographics as well as some basic behaviors, especially around purchasing and media consumption. Because they’re based on large sample sizes, organizations can feel confident using these patterns as the starting point for planning qualitative research, such as interviews or ethnography. This is an approach we’ve used successfully at Adaptive Path on many projects. Sometimes we start from quantitative research the organization already has, and sometimes we work with them to craft the surveys. An added benefit of this mixed method approach is that, after developing a richer sense of what’s going on with your customers through qualitative research, it’s possible to review surveys to explore how widespread observed behaviors and attitudes are. Neither of these approaches alone could provide such comprehensive insight or design inspiration.

Integrate Research with the Design Process

Integrating research into the design and development process is another effective strategy for two reasons. First, your employees need to trust your research before they’ll buy in. You can gain trust by bringing people into the process so they understand the origins of your research findings. This is the best way to make research an organizational competency. Second, when it comes to qualitative and contextual research, being there is an integral part of the process. That’s why we do research in context in the first place. Just as researchers benefit from being with customers to really appreciate what’s going on in their lives, the same is true for the rest of the team. Being in the room brings clarity that is difficult, if not impossible, to communicate via a report or video clip.

Bringing others into the research process is also the surest way to help them develop that honest empathy we keep talking about. Integrating others into research makes empathy a more explicit component and output of the process, every bit as important as the patterns of behavior and motivation you’ll uncover. Empathy, in turn, makes your research findings both more durable and more actionable. It’s standard practice at Adaptive Path to bring clients, designers, and engineers along with us for field research, or have them call in for phone interviews.

And we aren’t the only ones. Big companies like Intel and Samsung have made great strides in this direction as well. Intel has a reputation as a research innovator; it was one of the first large tech companies to hire social scientists to work in research and development through its People and Practices group. Now they’ve completely restructured the company and put research at the center of their efforts. In these new research-led groups, social scientists and designers work closely on all projects. Samsung has taken a different approach. In its Global Design Centers, researchers and designers aren’t coupled as they are at Intel, but they are located in the same room and work together very closely as a result. Samsung explicitly integrates space, which affords many opportunities for integrated practice.

Unfortunately, these scenarios aren’t possible in all organizations; there’s a continuum of integration and involvement (Figure 4-2). At one end is the approach we (and Intel) attempt to use on our projects, with people from all parts of the organization involved in the field, in the analysis sessions, and in the sharing and evangelization of the research results. In the middle, you might see organizations where researchers do “share outs,” going to other departments to share findings and stories through presentations. At the other end is the bare minimum of involvement. For example, we’ve had luck on a few projects with just having managers and engineers call in and listen to phone interviews while they worked on something else. Total integration may not happen all at once, but almost any amount of integration will help.

There are many different levels of integration between research and design.
Figure 4-2. There are many different levels of integration between research and design.

Even this little involvement, where the research is essentially a background process for employees, helps your team develop a sense of empathy with the research subjects. Invariably, these managers and engineers will reference something they heard during a phone call to punctuate a behavior, feeling, or story that comes up in research findings. That limited involvement makes research more real to them. In many cases, people who were initially mistrustful of research become enthusiastic advocates in the next round.

Create Truly Useful Deliverables and Artifacts

Unfortunately, sometimes even minimal involvement from key players inside the company is just not a possibility. So, if you can’t get everyone involved, you’ll have to rely on excellent research artifacts and deliverables. We’ve found that solid research deliverables exhibit three key characteristics:

  • They are clear and straightforward.

  • They engage readers.

  • They tell stories.

Deliverables should read like histories rather than corporate earnings statements. One particularly effective way to make deliverables more engaging is through the use of personas, archetypes of your customers and users that can act as surrogates for those people in the design process (Figure 4-3).

Personas are nothing new, and some people don’t think they add much value. But we use them regularly, and have seen them work well for many companies. Well-conceived personas are an efficient way to communicate insights and spark empathy. In our experience, effective personas are drawn from ethnographic research rather than demographics, market segments, or gut feelings about your audience. Your personas should be real, complete, and specific. Name them as individuals rather than as groups, profiles, or stereotypes (i.e., “soccer mom”). Develop personas for specific contexts and projects rather than for use enterprise-wide. To ensure clarity, keep personas about a page long and include key behaviors and motivations. Personas have names, pictures, and real problems —they’re engaging. The best personas also tell their story in their own words, often using quotes from actual research participants.

A persona from a project for Scripps Networks HGTV.com.
Figure 4-3. A persona from a project for Scripps Networks HGTV.com.

Quality personas can have far-reaching effects, because organizations can disseminate them to the furthest reaches of their org charts. They also have profound effects on employees beyond the research and design teams. The story about NewsCo from Chapter 3 is a perfect example. In that case, corporate evolution was linked to how strongly personas captured the imagination of that organization. Personas are powerful because they feel real, and they build a human connection.

Research deliverables and artifacts are just part of a larger means of sharing insights and empathy—even personas can’t entirely stand alone. Good deliverables are effective only if you make a concerted effort to share them widely. Obviously, these engaging research artifacts work best in organizations that are also making efforts to integrate research.

Make Prototypes

Prototyping isn’t usually considered a research activity, but there are few more efficient ways to integrate research into a design and development process. People get engaged when things get tangible, and prototyping helps integrate design, engineering, and marketing into the process, because they’re participating in research while it’s in progress. You can use prototypes at any stage, and they can take many forms: storyboards, conceptual sketches, or functioning systems, to name a few. Whatever form they take, they give everyone a real-world representation of ideas that will help engender a response from your team.

We worked on a project exploring the relationships people have with their possessions. To tackle such a complex and personal topic, we conducted ethnographic field research and telephone interviews. After the first few sessions with our research participants, we began to have some clear ideas of how the service we were designing might look. Rather than wait until after the “design” phase to explore these ideas, we quickly prototyped the basics of the service using a comic-like storyboard (see Chapter 6 for an example). We shared this story with our research participants during the last 15 minutes of our home visits, just to get a sense of whether the service made sense to them. Based on their reactions, we made slight adjustments to the comic as we went along. This allowed us to mix generative and evaluative research. By the end of the research phase, we had a strong start on the eventual design, and had much stronger buy-in from our clients because the prototype gave us something to share as we worked.

Prototyping products and experiences can also help build empathy with potential users. We worked on a project to develop a new approach to diabetes management. Early on, our team tried to understand the experience of using diabetes management tools by working with a prototype. Several members of the design team spent a few days walking around with a fake insulin pump attached to their stomachs, similar to the one diabetics use daily (Figure 4-4). While there was no way to truly understand what it was like to have diabetes, we came to understand some of the day-to-day difficulties with the related medical equipment. It also helped us to rapidly iterate on designs, seeking solutions that minimized the impact of the traditional tools.

A simple prototype of an insulin pump made from a cardboard box and plastic tube, filled with batteries and rocks to approximate weight.
Figure 4-4. A simple prototype of an insulin pump made from a cardboard box and plastic tube, filled with batteries and rocks to approximate weight.

Again, there are no clear step-by-step recipes for research that will work for every organization. The culture of your company and its employees will determine what actually works, but our strategies will give you a foundation and a place to start. Taken together, these research principles and strategies should change the way you regard the researchers in your organization. Their job is not only to learn about customers, but also to ensure that the entire organization shares that knowledge. Companies often think of their researchers as professional learners, but truly effective researchers are teachers and facilitators as well.

[20] “The Science of Desire,” Business Week, June 5, 2006.

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