Just when you think you've got this whole "knowledge economy" thing figured out, here comes the "creative economy" - the world in which your ability to succeed and add value is limited only by your imagination. Of course, that creativity needs to be informed by a deep understanding of your customers.
Customer centricity is a hallmark of design-led companies. That's one reason why design-led companies are outperforming their engineering- and sales-led peers, according to a new report from McKinsey & Company. And because design-led companies are relatively rare, there's plenty of opportunity to adopt their practices and gain some competitive advantage.
As the lines between digital, physical, and service interactions blur, giving way to a unified user experience, building empathy with your customers is more important than ever. These five techniques rooted in design thinking will help any team keep customers top-of-mind and deliver more value, more consistently.
You've probably chatted with customers on the phone or at events, but have you ever observed them "in the wild"? A contextual inquiry is more than a basic customer interview. It's a chance to understand your customers' needs and the context in which they use your product or service.
Contextual inquiries typically last a few hours and involve:
- Tour of the environment (office, home, etc.)
- Shadowing and interviewing individuals or groups
- Same-day debriefing session with your team
- Written summary of your findings.
The insights you gain during a contextual inquiry are useful on their own but become even more so when you use them as part of the other four techniques.
Even if you can't walk a mile in your customers' shoes, you can still spend an hour inside their heads. Sort of. In an empathy map exercise, you choose a customer persona and bring them to life by imagining their hopes, fears, needs... even where they get information and what sources they're likely to trust. From there, think about what they might hear, see, or feel while using your product.
You'll walk away with a better sense of who your customers are as people that you can put to use right away as you operate your service or market your product. You'll probably also generate a list of questions and assumptions to be validated as you work to improve it.
The path from being oblivious of your brand to a loyal brand champion can be long and fraught with pain points. Journey mapping visualizes how customers experience your product or service, as well as how they feel along the way.
Here again, you'll focus on a specific customer persona as they go through a specific journey - e.g., from their decision to purchase to the completion of the purchase process. Start by articulating each step in granular detail, noting how their sentiment is changing. From there, you can identify pain points that need to be addressed asap as well as opportunities to deliver more value.
If you can't define the problem you're solving, its impact on customers, and the contexts in which it pops up, you don't have a very good chance at solving it. For this technique, draw a 2x2 grid and fill the four sections with answers to these questions:
- Who - Who actually has this problem? Have you validated that the problem is real? Can you prove it?
- What - What is the nature of the problem? What research or supporting evidence do you have?
- Why - Why is the problem worth solving? What's the impact on the customer?
- Where - Where does this problem arise? Have you or your team observed this problem in its natural habitat?
Then, armed with a robust understanding of the problem, you can start thinking about solutions.
Inspired by the classic "lean canvas", an experience canvas helps clarify how you're going to solve a problem, the customers you're solving it for, and what success looks like.
Write your hypothesis at the top, then work through the areas of the canvas sequentially (more or less). As you go, feel free to go back and revise areas as needed. And don't stress about getting it all built out in one sitting. When the canvas is complete, you can run through the journey mapping exercise to better understand how a customer will engage with your solution at each touchpoint.
These techniques are more effective when done as a group - preferably a group that brings diverse skills and backgrounds to the table. You can find full instructions for all five (and many more) here.
Keep in mind it's not a smooth linear process. It's messy and scrappy, and you'll see the returns on your investment in small bursts. But you will indeed see it.