Case 1: GroupOn
There’s a lot to admire about GroupOn, a business model that stimulates local and locally-owned business through group discounts. Similar to successful operations in China, GroupOn hits many social media and possibly social responsibility buttons. Half the organization is said to be local and central sales account managers.
Here’s a recent Fast Company piece on GroupOn.
Andrew Mason is the unlikely CEO of last year's unlikeliest breakout business.
Mason himself is a person of uncommon candor. "I feel like a lot of companies invest a lot of energy and money in trying to figure out who their customer is and how to be just like that, and it never comes across as genuine," Mason told Fast Company from Groupon's offices in Chicago. "The companies that I like to do business with are--even if you find them a bit strange--genuine and real."
Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Mason proports a narrow conception of the scope and value of research. He implies that a company that invests in learning about their customers is by that very act showing they are out of touch with their customers. Founders in particular believe they have a handle on human nature and the market value and business viability of their product.
Mr. Mason speaks of companies that mimic their customers (“figure out…how to be just like that”), projecting a false front in lieu of an organic corporate identity, and how that is inauthentic, not genuine. For GroupOn, the corporation should be what it is, and the customers should be who they are. The “brand” is defined as authentic interaction.
Mr. Mason might be implying that ‘figuring out who the customer is’ does not accept customers on their terms, no matter how ‘strange’. If so, he may be suggesting that research generalizes too much and thus waters down each customer’s distinctions, distinctions that are what is genuine.
Fortunately, customer research is not as simplistic as “figuring out who the customer is”. The purposeis not to create a business and output tailored to current customers. The purpose of customer research is to think ahead to a bigger picture.
Online Community Management
Time for a side bar. As an online community manager I feel like I’m running a global open house party 24/7. Like any good host, I notice who shows up, who’s talking to whom, what is being discussed and where, the tone of the discussions, what activities are going on and how people move from one to the next: dancing, playing Kinect games, flipping through art books, hide and seek, show and tell, eating and drinking, migrating to a room to watch NASCAR, putting on swim suits…wait! I have to take the cover off the pool and maybe they would like a slide, or put up a net and toss in a volley ball! Is this a drinks-with-umbrellas set or strictly lemonade? How does the crowd change at different times of day? Who needs to be introduced to whom? Who would be good to put in charge of the grill? Where’s the best place to plug in the karaoke machine? Do I have the right partners and enough profit to keep me happy and this party going forever?
Leading a small business is the same thing. I learn a lot simply by minding the operation every day and watching and interacting with customers. How could I benefit from knowing more?
If there was no good answer to that question there would be no business, social, and financial research, analytics and forecasting. And while not faultless, benefit from these sources has often been achieved. It's a question of investment, and that is often a big roadblock.
Case 2: soma fm
SOMA FM, a fabulous internet radio station based in San Francisco, airs nor displays commercials. I recently listened to Rusty Hodge, founder, program director and general manager of SOMA FM, talk about his business. His comments reflect the small business owner’s outlook when he said, “I don’t care what listeners think of the music.” In my experience, people who say they don’t care are expressing two things: 1) they learn a lot from being plugged into their businesses, and 2) they’ve made do with their own inner guidance and trial and error without the cost of research and analytics while establishing their businesses.
Rusty points out that he gets feedback from listeners from their email, tweets and comments on the Facebook page. These data are almost certainly unrepresentative. But he says that based on a survey a few years ago of those who receive the email newsletter his listener’s tastes and preferences, and possibly usage patterns, are “all over the map”, therefore to him there’s little, if anything, to cohesively represent.
Considering the unsystematic approach to learning about listeners, it’s easy to see how this could seem so. For him, research appears to offer inconclusive, and thus meaningless and irrelevant findings. Not worth the investment, at least.
And that may be true up to a point in a business’s development. To move to a next level though, if a next level is desired, the question is whether daily business management provides adequate exposure to customer preferences and needs to meet business objectives.
So when Rusty said that he learns from his listeners from online and email feedback, I asked what he would do with analysis of that information. He had already stated he would not add or drop content at the direction of listeners. He is a businessman and an auteur.
However, he allows that the electronic music business is incestuous. If he learned that a segment of listeners of a certain channel like a certain song, he said he might consider programming the solo works of the musicians in the band, or other works of the producer.
In other words, he would do what an online community manager might do – refine and expand his offerings to attract and retain his most desired listeners. Who are his most desired listeners? No surprise - at this point, it’s those who donate money.
Conclusion: The plan for advancing small businesses to the next level is well-trod. Where does the organization see going to next? What are the viable ways that can happen? Finally, what information can help make it all so?
P.S./rant > I have always disliked the terms “customer insights” and “voice of the customer”. To me they feel like words stakeholders use to characterize [i.e. package] research. These terms imply a light impression, a tiny spark that may inspire business and product genius. They also diminish the effort and skill required to generate solid research findings, not to mention the courage to try and fail and try again in the course of exploration, and the leadership required to boost a team’s ability to discover.
It was an adjustment going from academic anthropologist to corporate user experience (UX), also called "customer", researcher. Designers I often work with learn about real life problems and become inspired problem solvers differently than social researchers. Come 2003-ish, the hot debate became whether formal research was needed at all. Research, it was said, slows the process at the beginning, gets way too detailed and tangled in social science vocabulary and theory, and the occasional unwelcome finding is that the baby is ugly.
So who are the UX research champions? Xerox pioneered and continue to apply anthropology in house to understand user experiences.
Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO, describes anthropologists thusly.
The Anthropologist is rarely stationary. Rather, this is the person who ventures into the field to observe how people interact with products, services, and experiences in order to come up with new innovations. The Anthropologist is extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way, humanizing the scientific method to apply it to daily life. Anthropologists share such distinguishing characteristics as the wisdom to observe with a truly open mind; empathy; intuition; the ability to "see" things that have gone unnoticed; a tendency to keep running lists of innovative concepts worth emulating and problems that need solving; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places.
Most non-academic anthropologists would agree with that description and perhaps be flattered. In my experience, conversely and frequently in practice, designers approach learning with observation of a problem in action followed by several days of intensive post-it note conceptualizing, low-fidelity prototyping, and lots of pizza and M&Ms. The process taps into instinct stemming from an academic and practicum foundation, driven by a need for rapid breakthrough results.
Admirably, the emphasis is on problem groking and solving. Less prominent effort is placed on learning what’s beneath and around observed behaviors. As Paul Dourish reminded us, the true value of anthropology's ethnographic approach is in the later analysis and theorizing rather than the field observations.
So but anyway, one might ask, “Where’s the problem?” Is anything else really needed in this picture?
And yet, there are still UX researchers. Recently Asana posted a UX Designer job requirement: “Deep intuition for usability, but a willingness to let go of your instincts when proven incorrect.” And who does that ‘proven incorrect’ part? Well, often that would be researchers. Garrrr…
To this day, an occasional designer rails against UX research (and UX research punches back). Note the self-evidenced success of Silicon Valley all-star Apple. This is the Design for Designers argument. “If we like it, the users will like it.” Microsoft engineers used to think everyone thought like they did, too – once upon a time.
Take for example Fast Company Design’s screed. The power statement is “Why it’s harmful to listen to the users”.
I know what the author is driving at. Google, for one, takes Data-Driven Design to an extreme. My heart goes out to creative directors like Doug Bowman, who wrote back in 2009 when he jumped Google for Twitter:
When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.
Moreover, data (yes - even statistics) can be and often are flawed for any number of reasons. Up or down votes from users are not always conclusive or wise. A UX professional can be the skeptic and decide on validating or corrective actions.
So let’s consider Fast Company Design’s arguments for doing away with UX research.
1. Users [sic] insights can’t predict future demand
First off, user experience research is not about gathering user's insights. That's market research. We’re looking for customer needs and requirements – WE, the professionals, figure out what those are. They are extrapolated from what people say and do.
Yes, as often called for and performed, much UX research is expected to predict the future by gleaning from what scanty and imperfectly collected and interpreted data can be gotten in the miniscule time provided. Corporate research can be a faulty process, no doubt. All too often it’s an exercise in management derriere-covering. For qualitative researchers the expectations are even harder – our work can come off as so much tea leaf-reading without those numbers and attendant bar graphs and pie charts coveted by the MBAs and engineers among us.
Instead of prediction, let’s think forecasting, projecting…pre-thinking. Then later when some predictions do come to pass while other events rock our world, at least we may not be totally blind-sided. The point is not to predict with dead-on accuracy. The idea is to ponder educated guesses and stay flexible.
Upper level managers are protecting their jobs but they also want to trust in what’s being produced, and produced on a foreseeably reasonable timeframe. Researchers, designers, product managers - we all want them to trust us.
Forecasting is not predicting. Forecasting is speculating given lots of ‘in the wild’ intelligence: stories, photos, artifacts, video, conceptualizing, rationalizations, workarounds – all used to create possible trajectories within various scenarios. With a wider and flexible range of view a Black Swan event is less likely to throw an organization off balance. Research can prepare. A new balance is established, accounting for the new shift in “reality”. A rounder sense of reality can reduce shock and prepare flexible minds for emerging radical prospects.
Bottom line: Disruptive innovation processes can and should mature. Innovative design relies heavily on informed individuals not residing in a vacuum. This is where innovation management comes in. More on that in another blog.
The Fast Company Design blog author suggests a designer’s nirvana: producing multiple products (not iterations but fully-formed possibilities) to see what sticks. Most of the time this is bet-hedging. After all, it takes guts for a business to pick one product and focus like a laser beam on it. Multiple product launches are massively expensive and hard to justify in today’s economic times. Then if they’re all launched, the array of choices confuses potential customers and is complex to market. But hedging bets creates a safety net that keeps investors happy. So it turns out it takes guts to innovate product and marketing. Intelligence research helps that happen.
Finally, the author suggests that the best and brightest be hired to create those brilliant products in “record time”. Sounds good, but it's not a panacea. In reality, the best and brightest can struggle to collaborate and meet a development timetable.
2. User-centered processes stifles creativity
Don’t get me started on Steven Spielberg as an example of an auteur director, being influenced by inner lights rather than by the tides of Hollywood. Ok. I'm started. When a guy can't win Best Picture or Best Director Oscars for a masterpiece like Munich ("Crash" won, and Ang Lee for directing "Brokeback Mountain"), he then earns a mint making Indiana Jones 4. Woody Allen, John Waters, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Tim Burton, Roman Polanski...THESE are auteur directors, and even their best works don't pull in big box office. So their works might be perfect execution of artist’s brilliant visions. As a designer, is that your job or is it more to improve the market standing of your or your client's company?
The author here lauds self-centered design processes; the unleashing of subjective, inspired, talented individuals, unburdened by the constraints of measly, tiny-brained users who don’t really know what they want.
This is a step backwards to before Donald Norman woke up the design community to the wonders of user input in design. This was at the start of Design Thinking. Isn’t one of the doctrines of innovation the surmounting of limits? Disruptive innovation is a complex concept, but basically, eventual wide adoption translates to financial success. Two constraints count - those of the designer's imagination and the abilities and needs of those who will feel the product's impact. Any designer aiming for a massively adopted product works with limits that come from real world people.
3. User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations
So again – inspired designers are said to more likely produce big results without the encumbrance of human preferences and behaviors.
This argument dismisses incremental design changes entirely in favor of breakout products. These are separate missions – no? Doesn’t every company need both short and long term product development? Such a perspective may account for why some companies still set up an Innovation Lab, a sequestered place for hired gun, rock star gurus to work on disruptive invention while the rest of product development toils away on v.24.
So then the author points out the converse:User-led design leads to sameness. Yet “user-led” is different from “user-focus”. By user-led, the author presumably refers to Goggle’s data-driven design. Or maybe the author refers to UX research everywhere that might produce the same findings; all resultant design would then be the same? Clearly none of that happens.
Anyway, iterative product releases with nearly imperceptible version changes is common. Those iterations can map to a major change in a master plan that spells out brand differentiation if not breakthrough.
It’s wrong to dismiss UX Research entirely for short or long term product development. Conventional wisdom says innovation can come from anywhere. We need more mature innovation management principles and practices that are more like intelligence. Listening first.
First posted here: http://maggid.posterous.com/ux-research-as-innovation-intelligence-part-1
Experience researcher in high tech and built environments with an anthropology provenance.