This week I was chatting with someone who works at an organization that does not yet recognize the value of generative research before defining products. She said to me, with exasperation in her voice, “The product managers here still go around collecting needs from our customers and giving us lists of features to implement.” She had some money left over from a budget (that doesn’t happen often!) and wanted to spend it on a small research project that would get to the root of what people were trying to do–people who were not yet customers. Her dream is to be able to show the product managers and executives at her company results from the generative research illuminating several new, previously uncharted activities that her company can support.
Her situation got me thinking about how most organizations go about product design, and how short-sighted their method is. Usually the focus is on existing practices of customers using existing products. If you’re lucky, maybe the focus is on existing practices, but of people using other companies’ products. People spend lots of effort to capture the step-by-step procedure customers use to achieve something. They produce a lot of boxes-and-arrows diagrams that portray all the nuances of the customer process. A lot of time and sweat is invested in making those boxes-and-arrows precise, which is unnecessary, in my opinion. If the precise diagram only traces the workaround someone developed to make things go how he wants them to go, then you are only perpetuating a flaw. Sure, people buy flawed services and products, but not because they want to. It’s because it’s all the choice they have.
It’s time to go past the existing workflow and get into peoples’ intentions.
In each of these examples, you can imagine different ways to support the actor. Take the hungry person who just wants to spend time with her husband after their very busy days. Cooking and shopping are just two things she can eliminate from her schedule. She could also eliminate picking up the dry cleaning or writing checks to pay bills. But let’s say your organization is an organic produce farmers market. You have a basic philosophy of helping people eat healthy foods. You offer a weekly home-delivery service of a box of local, in-season fruit and vegetables. Along with that service, you have a selection of recipes online to help people cook vegetables they are unfamiliar with. For years you and your peers have been discussing how to convince people to stop doing the fast food thing, but the ease of getting quick, cheap (usually sweet and fatty and produced somewhere far, far away–but I digress) food seems like too much to overcome. Examine her underlying motive: spend more time with her husband. Let’s say that you’ve already captured the market that happily cooks and have convinced their spouses to cook together. That leaves the couple that doesn’t like cooking. What if you get a professional kitchen license and create some simple, wholesome, organic “TV dinners,” packaged in recyclable paper take-out boxes, that you offer for weekly delivery. True, this is a business risk and probably costs almost as much to produce as you could charge for it, but it is worth exploring since you already have the delivery infrastructure in place. If the hungry person is motivated more by quality time than by cost, then you might have a great idea here.
When you spend time with people who might become someone you produce a service or a product for, concentrate on finding these underlying intentions. Deliberately jump past the details of how they execute something currently and spend time instead asking them what’s behind this step. What are they trying to accomplish besides the step itself? Frequently, people haven’t really thought past the steps, and your conversation turns into more of a psychotherapy session, helping the person work through the underlying issues and describe them for you. When this happens, you know you’re on the right track. With the results of several conversations like this, you can guide your organization into areas you hadn’t previously considered or been consciously aware of. This direction leads to services and products that support what a person really intends to do and makes their life smoother. And that is a very attractive proposition to most of us.