From Moscow with Love: A User Research War Story by Joel Kashuba

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  • Joel Kashuba has practiced design for nearly two decades, with a career spanning the practices of architecture, industrial design, branding, UX, and innovation consulting. He currently leads the Innovation & Design functions for Fifth Third Bank located in Cincinnati, Ohio. He told this story on stage at Midwest UX 2017.

    cover of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries

    While working for a major CPG company I was placed with a cross-functional innovation team assigned to write and vet concepts that would take a well-known women’s shaving brand into several other personal care categories. The focus was on serving the needs of young women in several BRIC countries. The theme we had been asked to unlock was “A Day at the Spa” – a theme the company had uncovered in earlier research within the United States and projected as a fruitful area to mine for opportunities and frame our expansion.

    Before going out into the field – specifically, to Moscow – the project team undertook countless hours of concept writing sessions, often with heavily resourced vendor partners. We created roughly 25 concepts, each taking unique inspiration from the theme “A Day at the Spa”. Armed with our concepts we set off to Russia and began collaborating with consumers in the field to vet each concept.

    By the noon on the first day, none of our concepts were resonating and we recognized our first challenge. The translator we had been assigned by a local agency was an older Russian gentleman who sounded much like a James Bond villain. As he readied each of our painstakingly word-smithed concepts, they each ended up sounding like the dastardly ideas of a dour old man who may like to cross-dress. To fix this, we recruited a spritely young woman who worked as an assistant concierge at our hotel to read the concepts. She was great! Several of our consumers even mentioned that she had the perfect voice for commercials in this category.

    Despite this change, our concepts still weren’t hitting the mark we were aiming for and we couldn’t figure out why. These concepts had been exceptionally well received in our early test back in the States – what was going on here in Moscow that made them such tankers?

    Finally, near the morning of day three, one of our consumers asked us plainly, “Why are you trying to make me feel old?”

    “Old?” we asked her with sincere confusion, “Can you say more? Is there something in the concepts that makes you feel old?”

    “Yes,” she quickly retorted, “you keep talking to me about spending a day at the spa.”

    “And what does that mean to you?” we had our translator ask her.

    She looked surprised and a little pissed off. She explained, “It means the place we send our grandmothers when they are too old to take care of in their homes. It’s the place people go before they die.”

    It hit us like a ton of bricks. In Russian culture, a “spa” is what we’d call a retirement home. As we had been pulling out concept after concept trying to get these young women to fall in love with our theme, all they saw was of tone-deaf Americans shoving the idea of products for a retirement home down their throats.

    We were horrified. We called off the rest of the day’s consumers and stayed up all night re-writing the concepts. The young concierge we had hired to translate became an adjunct team member. Constrained by time, we changed our strategy and turned consumer research into consumer co-creation. We had consumers work in teams to read and re-write the concepts, which were passed along to other teams of consumers to be refined. By the time we finished we had three great concepts that all resonated well.

    Coming back to our home base, we reflected on the experience as a team. What we had set out to do was valid, but how we remained nimble in the field is what made the clear difference in how we would found success.


    Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. He’s written two books on user research:  Interviewing Users and Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Follow Steve on Twitter or listen to his podcast Dollars to Donuts.

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