INNOVATE

4 Secrets to Get Inside Your Customers' Heads

"Extreme research" can help you build products customers love. Here's how one company does it.
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Would you shoot yourself with a laser to make a better product? Researchers at the design firm Continuum have--to test the effect of a treatment for toe fungus. They've also rappelled down the side of a building, ridden in milk trucks in Bangalore, and performed operations on cadavers, all in pursuit of one thing--empathy with a product's customers.

That empathy is what leads to better, more compelling products, explains Anthony Pannozzo, managing principal, Research & Innovation at Continuum. "What's the experience someone is having on a day-to-day basis?" he asks. "We look at what the best experience could be, whether it's digital, or a physical product, or a combination of the two."

To get to the heart of user experience, Continuum researchers use four extreme research tools. Try them  yourself to get a better idea of how customers interact with your products:

1. Use technology to get an inside look.

When Continuum set out to help Tetra Pak improve its juice boxes, researchers wondered, How do people drink juice? "It's an odd question because people don't really think about how they drink juice," Pannozzo says. The company turned to technology to find out, designing a special prototype bottle with a camera in the bottom of it to observe what juice drinkers actually do.

"One of the most surprising things we learned was that in India, there's often sharing of beverages, and the actual lip of the dispenser never touches the person's mouth," he says. Instead, people there tip back their heads and pour the beverage into their mouths from above. Armed with this knowledge, Tetra was able to provide a slightly different container for that market.

2. Try it yourself.

One of the best ways to tell how consumers use a product is to use it yourself. So to help create the first hands-free disposable insulin pump, Continuum researchers went through a diabetic's routine, injecting themselves with harmless saline solution daily to see what the experience was like and experiment with different gauges of needles.

"We found out what it was like to switch to the other arm because one arm was too sore," Pannozzo says. "We learned how painful it can be to hit muscle." They never could have learned these things as well by simply observing diabetics, he adds.

3. Build a life-size prototype.

One problem with architecture, Pannozzo says, is that its prototypes for buildings are small enough to fit on a coffee table. Instead, he believes in building life-size prototypes and seeing how people actually use them.

This approach helped Holiday Inn redesign its lobbies with cafes that help the company capture some missed revenue opportunities when guests would go to a nearby cafe or restaurant for meals or meetings. "A lot of people might think prototyping a 4,000-square-foot hotel lobby was daunting. We rented an airline hangar and were able to recreate that experience using foam," Pannozzo says.

Using what Continuum had learned, Holiday Inn knew to design cafes with plenty of space between tables, allowing for private conversations, and with good sight lines to the hotels' playgrounds so that parents can easily keep watch on their kids.

4. Head to the field.

Sometimes the best way to learn about customer behavior is to go where customers are. That's the approach Continuum used when Procter & Gamble asked the company to help design a new cleaning product.

P&G thought of cleaning products as something you put in a bottle, but Continuum went out to people's homes to observe their cleaning routines up close. They found people prided themselves on having a clean floor, but that cleaning the floor was a dirty, time-consuming job that involved a lot of getting down on hands and knees.

"We helped them design the Swiffer," Pannozzo says. "Now it's a half-a-billion-dollar a year revenue stream for them."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 22, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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