The switch! How can customers better target their companies?!

I remember a 2004 Fast Company article (“Every Move You Make,” by Linda Tischler) that discussed how marketing agencies were employing anthropologists and ethnographers to better understand what consumers do, rather than what they say they do. The story was told through the experience of Ogilvy & Mather’s ethnography group and their lead corporate ethnographer as the team investigated the behaviors of people drinking in bars. Though the term wasn’t new to me at the time, and certainly will not be new to many people, it was the first time I really “heard” the words corporate ethnography. It struck me that it sounded more like the conducting of ethnography of corporations and not what it was, the corporate-led research by a company of its customers…which led me to want to turn corporate ethnography on its head.

What if corporate ethnography was actually research conducted by customers into the behaviors of companies in order to better understand what businesses deliver, rather than what they say they’re delivering? What if the purpose was to enable customers to address the unmet goals and needs of company stakeholders? This research could channel a business’s behavior toward a positive customer experience, one that would be determined by the customer’s influence on the company rather than the company’s influence on the customer.

There are already signs of a change toward more customer-influenced design. Social media has enabled customers to take a more active role in brand dialogue, changing what was previously a one-way conversation from brand to consumer (epitomized by the 30-second TV spot) into a consumer-to-consumer brand dialogue (manifested in the sharing of thoughts, images, advice, feedback and experiences by one consumer to others). The content of the conversations and the overall sentiment being expressed are already drivers for behavioral change within companies: If I check into a major brand hotel in a major metropolis and tweet that I am unhappy with my room, hotel management might quickly respond to ensure my stay is not a disappointment. (This is only a singular behavior change, not a company wide one…but it’s a start.)

In addition, customers are increasingly involved in the creation of the very products and services they may be in the market to buy. Brands such as Starbuck’s (My Starbuck’s Idea), adidas (online custom shoe design tool), Threadless (community-driven product selection), and BMW (Co-Creation Lab) are just some of the companies embracing open innovation. Co-design/co-creation and participatory design are early indicators of customers engaging as partners in a process; it gets them involved as equals in determining their marketplace destiny. While some of these open innovation scenarios are customer-driven, most are still initiated at the invitation of the company. Customers are not walking in and leading the charge—yet.

We need to create a new field of customer ethnography (or “corporate relationship management”) that will be the proactive study and gathering of data and insights on corporate culture by networked consumers. This will allow customers to better understand what motivates their companies and what behaviors influence their companies’ products and services, and will likely result in bringing new customer-influenced products and services to market.

Can we imagine a day when customers have the tools to proactively influence the behavior of company stakeholders? A day when the conversation is two-way, allowing consumers to understand and influence the behaviors of companies? Is there a digital innovation in the future that puts customers behind the wheel in leading the design and marketing of sustainable, meaningful, useful, useable products, services and information? Will current social media outlets be transformed into the future tools of customer-driven relationship management?

Is it already here!?

I’m open to hearing your ideas.

Strategic design for competitive advantage: the competitor customer experience audit

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Whether or not you agree with Bruce Nussbaum, one of the leading media voices to support the approach to design inherent in design thinking, and his recent highly publicized declarations that design thinking has been a failed experiment; it may be useful in that it may provoke a broadening of the discussion around what it takes to create great design.

One aspect of the design of business upon which I would love to see such discussion is the role of design in the creation of competitive advantage. I have always believed that design thinking is most powerful when paired successfully with the elements of business thinking and that this happy marriage can provide great momentum to the process of producing market innovations. Market innovations that provide competitive advantage often exhibit one of its key characteristics…they differentiate the business from competitors in the market place. I believe it is the responsibility of business designers to understand how to achieve this and to continually innovate the tools and methods of design to achieve this. It is core component of the strategy formation process and an important area in which the role of designers and design managers can move upstream.  

In the design innovation process insights drive ideas and the deeper the understanding generated by your insights the more plentiful, inspiring and diverse your ideas are likely to be. Design research that engages with customers and users is the principal way that designers gain the insights that reveal unmet needs. Customer personas are an important by-product of such research and provide a lens through which empathic designers can imagine and validate ideas and concepts aimed at satisfying their goals and needs. However, I would like to suggest a desk research tool that builds on the primary research and resultant personas and can help focus in on potential unmet needs and which are not provided by competitors. The goal of this tool is to identify competitive white space that a business might occupy and which can result in differentiated products and services. The tool is called the competitor customer experience audit.

When is a persona a reliable persona?

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One of the most useful of tools of human-centered design are personas. They are a wonderful form of synthesis upon completion of primary user research. They become a lens through which design and business teams can define users; understand their goals, needs, behaviors, and motivations; and remain objective when determining the features that may satisfy those needs.

However, I would almost guarantee that from one design agency to the next you would be hard-pressed to find a consistent definition of personas, why they are useful, how to create them, who should create them, and how to use personas during the design and marketing of new products, services, communications, and well…just about anything that can be designed for people! And because agencies present personas in different ways to the marketplace, businesses are also often unclear on what qualifies a persona to be a truly reliable and quality persona. Arriving at reliability and quality is a question of degree. The degree of insight and information the design team has at their disposal, the means in which it was obtained, and the skill at surfacing the important dimensions of the persona are critical to building confidence that teams can indeed make important design and business decisions that they can stand by.

The questions of degree in the creation process look something like this…

Visualizing Strategy

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Designers partnering in business strategy formation bring many fresh tools, techniques, and perspectives to the process. From methods for gathering information, forming insights, generating ideas, imagining concepts, validating concepts, and articulating a design vision that can make ideas real, design strategists (or strategic designers) bring unique value every step of the way.

One of the most powerful tools at the disposal of the strategy team is the collection of all of the strategic intelligence that realizes the strategy into a single visualization that quickly communicates the forces driving the strategy. From the digital business perspective visualizations often reflect strategies for single or multi-channel products, services, and experiences. The end result may be a completely new web site, a specific set of web-based services for a target market, or a multi-site strategy reflecting a diverse marketing campaign embracing social networks and other discrete touchpoints.

Visualizations can be all-encompassing, covering a full range of inputs that typically include over-arching corporate strategy, brand positioning, competitive positioning, and target consumers as well as outputs such as strategic drivers, principal ideas and concepts translated into prioritized products and services, and brand and design principles to apply when tackling implementation. On the other hand, visualizations can also focus on one contributor to the strategy information stream. A good example is the quantitative and qualitative research driving the establishment of market segmentation and creation of target customer personas.