Empathie Design Research Methodologies

Often the most important pieces of information for a product developer are the things people do not talk about, the things they cannot tell you when you ask, the things they may not even recognize themselves. The currently exalted "Voice Of the Customer" (VOC) is not enough. A deeper understanding of people is important in any new product development initiative. Given the complexities of MFPs, it is even more important to achieve, and sometimes more difficult. Marketers ^

need to go beyond traditional research data to understand aspects of consumers' |

needs and desires that they are unable to articulate. Underlying meaning, context, |

drivers, systems, and influencers all need to be part of the research picture and they |>

can include empathic methodologies.

Ethnography is the primary empathic research. With its roots in anthropology and methodology used in consumer sociology, it produces a detailed description of specific cultures as observed by researchers inside the subjects' environment. Progressive design and manufacturing firms have been using these methodologies, mainly over the past decade, but the practice has only recently begun to catch on with a few leading-edge consumer products companies.

Ethnography usually includes a blend of historical, observational, and interview methods. This typically works in an iterative process between observing and testing. However, some believe that empathic research should not include testing or even much interaction at all between the researcher and the subject.

Focus groups, interviews, and usability laboratories yield information from artificial contexts. Surveys yield numbers but no meaning. Empathic research gets to the real story underneath the staged probes and numbers. It produces information simply unobtainable through other research methodologies.

Empathic research is extremely valuable in getting to unarticulated and undiscovered needs. It is a means for discovery. By observing and interacting with real people in a variety of real contexts, researchers are able to see their product use and reactions to this use. Researchers can see how people have created their own alternative uses for products, and, potentially, their own product bundling efforts to achieve the benefits of multifunction. And, they find new ways of thinking and ask questions that they would not have even known to ask.

For example, alternative use can point to or trigger the need for multifunctional products. A study by the Food & Brand Lab at the University of Illinois found that 30% of respondents, motivated by convenience, have found new ways to use cleaning products, such as using laundry bleach to clean countertops; 28% of respondents, motivated by cost consciousness, use health and beauty items in different ways, such as Preparation-H to tighten facial pores and smooth out fine wrinkles; and 26% of respondents, motivated by health consciousness, use food in new ways, such as substituting yogurt for sour cream in a recipe.

Simply knowing about the trends in health, cost, and time consciousness would not likely yield insights to alternative or "underground" use. But observing people using products in their own natural environments, as they go about their daily life, can reveal these emerging opportunities as well as previously undetected problems. We find that it is extremely helpful to also observe patterns of use of related products, such as food products in a beauty products study.

Beyond numbers and verbal answers of traditional methodologies, empathic research works with visual information, creative interaction, multidisciplinary teams, objective facilitators.

Product developers may believe that they already know a lot about their category and about existing functionalities, or they may believe that they get the data they need from traditional qualitative and quantitative methodologies. That is true only with well-known products. With established products and functions, consumers are familiar enough to be able to articulate quite a bit about their needs and preferences. Rembrandt tooth-whitening bleach strips were relatively easy for t consumers to envision because many were already familiar with tooth bleaching kits offered by their dentists. But, significantly, new concepts and the new bundling of functions create needs for different kinds of information.

Consumers think in terms of incremental differences: make it softer, cheaper, easier. But rarely are they able to think beyond their current circumstances to even imagine the possibility of a whole new solution. For example, consumers never asked for fax machines.

If a company has a new technology or a radically new concept, unlike any that consumers are currently familiar with, it is unlikely to elicit meaningful feedback. It is likely to produce confusion and rejection.

Watching consumers has always yielded obvious, but still tremendously valuable, basic information. Consider usability: Is the package difficult to open? Does the user have to resort to the manual, or are operating principles clearly telegraphed by the design? Are handles, knobs, and distances from the floor designed ergonomically? Does the user hesitate or seem confused at any point? What unspoken and possibly false assumptions are guiding the user's interaction with the product?

Traditional research tools unearth basic information about preference and ease of use. Empathic techniques find more, such as the following.

1. Interactions with personal environments. Where do people use products? How do their environments affect product use? For example, with society becoming increasingly mobile, many women need to apply makeup on the run— in taxis, on trains and buses, in the bathroom at work, and, yes, even driving or walking down the street. To make the job easier and quicker, and the cosmetics themselves less bulky, some women began to use their blush both for cheeks and as eye shadow, or their lipstick both for their lips and as their blush.

2. Personalization. How do people alter products to suit their own needs and preferences? What alternative uses have people discovered? What causes people to use what they use? What causes them to change? What functions or features have they bundled on their own? For example, some consumers discovered that they could use hair conditioner in place of a shaving cream for their legs because they usually did not have shaving cream—still a "men-thing"—around. We have not yet researched the catalysts and drivers that moved some consumers to use Preparation-H as a remedy for under-eye circles, but the story is sure to be interesting.

3. Experience in use. How do people feel when they use products? For example, is the experience relaxing, pleasurable, frustrating, or nostalgic? What subtle aspects affect the users? For instance, how do they respond to fragrance, texture, or color? How do they react to compliments or other comments they receive from friends and family? Do they feel confident in its use? For example, the tingle in Noxzema Skin Cream told consumers that the product was working. |

4. Unarticulated problems. What problems do people encounter in using J products? What problems do they encounter in daily life that might illuminate a t new product opportunity? What can they not do that they might want or need to do? For example, consumers know that their hair doesn't look the way it should a week after a salon visit, but they may not be able to articulate why. The development of new shampoo and conditioner products that "lock in" color to keep it from fading or turning, or even to boost color in between visits, was a successful solution to this unarticulated need.

Empathic Research uses a process that grows out of anthropology. It includes the following steps:

1. Preparation. An outside expert is chosen to help plan and facilitate the process. A team is formed, including representatives across functional areas such as marketing, R&D, consumer research, sales, and customer service. In some cases, it is helpful to invite range stakeholders from outside the company to join the team. It is important to include both outside, objective observers and development team members. Together, they determine the scope of interest, including definitions of the subject group, the observation team, and the environment to be observed. And they plan the field trips.

2. Observation. The key difference between this set of methodologies and others is that it is often more about watching than it is about questioning. The observers are generally "quiet." They may send out a few very broad, open-ended questions, and they will likely develop a list of more specific questions to be used later in the development process. The primary object of the observation is consumer experience. The experience of applying, wearing, and removing makeup, in a variety of conditions, is the key focus, not the makeup itself. As the process moves forward, researchers may interact more with their subjects to bring another dimension to the learning.

3. Recording. Because of the visual nature of this kind of research, it is usually best to videotape, photograph, and do an audio recording of the observations. It is important to be as unobtrusive as possible, to avoid disturbing or influencing the subjects in any way. These recordings capture much more than observers could with note taking. The visual references are often triggers for new ideas.

4. Analysis. As with the first parts of the process, it is critical to have a variety of minds interpreting the data. Different people see different things. Different experience bases offer different insights. Again, objectivity is important. The object of the analysis is to define a set of both current and potential problems and needs.

5. Application. In this step, the inside/outside team merges the data they gathered with the company's capabilities and goals. This is an extremely creative part of the process, in which product solution ideas are generated, then concepts are visualized and developed.

6. Prototyping. Prototypes are developed, whether they are conceptual | prototypes, virtual prototypes, or physical prototypes, to test and refine the product concepts. In some cases, researchers introduce prototypes to consumers in q t their own environments and start the observation process again. Sometimes we work with prototypes in User Development Groups®, a methodology the SPWI Group developed, which combines elements of both qualitative research and creative development (see more on User Development Groups and more on prototyping further on in the chapter). We introduce the prototypes to groups of consumers/users and moderate specialized in-depth discussions, inviting the participants into the creative process. In addition to giving feedback, they actually join in to shape and improve the prototype. In the case of multifunctional products, prototyping can be a big help in optimizing the functional bundle, because it offers a more concrete base from which to work.

The output data include stories and anecdotes, visual vignettes, and snippets of new understanding. Cultural and behavioral themes emerge. The data pool keeps growing, and the team repeatedly dips in throughout the development process. New insights create new questions, which create new insights.

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