Doing Customer Anthropology When Your Customer is the Public

need affinity matrix
In a recent article, I provided an overview of Customer Anthropology, one of the hottest research and innovation tools in business today. The essence of this approach is that customers often don’t know what they need, so by spending time observing them using your products (and your competitors’ products) you can often identify many business opportunities (and threats) that sales analysis, interviews and customer satisfaction surveys won’t reveal.

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, your first important task is to find an unmet need, understand why it is not currently being met, and assess whether you and your partners have the capabilities and resources to meet it. Customer Anthropology provides a terrific means to do this task. It allows you to see, first hand, what people need that isn’t being provided by current products (users cursing, complaining, and working around deficiencies in the existing products is a great clue). And it enables you to see why the current products aren’t meeting the need, which can help you determine why the very smart incumbent producers are missing the mark. Of course, you also need to understand the production economics and the technology limitations, but observing customers will get you off on the right foot.

Most of the examples of Customer Anthropology in the literature are business-to-business. Steelcase uses this approach to design effective workspaces for its customers, which are, at least directly, other corporations. Medical technology companies use this approach by visiting hospitals and medical facilities, and they’re observing the doctors and staff, not the patients.

Once corporate customers appreciate the benefits of Customer Anthropology, they’re often more than willing to allow their suppliers to observe their people at work. And they’re curious to learn about how to use the technique with their customers. But what do you do when your customer is the public, or when, although you may sell your product through intermediaries, it is the public’s use and satisfaction with the product you want to observe, not the intermediary’s?

In one sense, because you don’t need to get permission to access corporate offices, Customer Anthropology with the public is easier than with corporate customers. But there are a number of issues to address:

  1. Respecting Privacy: The public’s right to privacy, and not to be ‘spied on’ by anthropologists
  2. Gaining Access: Access to observe the public using your product, when it’s used inside the home rather than in public places.
  3. Defining Your ‘Customers’: Determining which of the 6.5 billion customers and potential customers of your product to observe.

Let’s take each of these issues in turn.

Respecting Privacy

On the privacy issue, it’s important that you be honest and open with those you are observing, even though to some degree that may compromise the accuracy of your observations. If the customer knows you are observing them using their product, they’re less likely to throw it across the room in frustration.

This is an issue that anthropologists deal with all the time. They need to gain the trust of the people they are observing. That trust requires absolute honesty. If they’re using your product (or a product similar to something you’re thinking of producing) for dubious purposes, or if they’re awkward using it, they need to know you won’t rat them out or ridicule them. They need to know you’re observing them solely to help you design a better product for them to use, and they need to have given their consent to be observed. And you, as the anthropologist, need to have the judgement skills to know when what you’re observing is bona fide behaviour, and when it’s a performance for your benefit. As observer, you need to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.

If the use of the product you’re studying occurs in public places, you can of course do some observation without the knowledge or consent of the people you’re observing. But there are serious limits to such opportunities. One of the key elements of Customer Anthropology is the follow-up interview with those you’re observing to clarify behaviours that you didn’t understand simply from watching. You can’t go up to a stranger and say “I’ve been observing you trying to use that cigarette lighter to start your barbecue. Can I ask you a few questions about why you’re doing that?”

It can be useful, if you can afford it, to offer some incentives to those you are observing, to encourage them to allow you to let you eavesdrop on them. The Nielsen company did this for years to get the right to monitor exactly what parts of what programs and commercials customers were watching on TV. The customer got various gifts and monetary rewards, and Nielsen got the unvarnished truth, which turned out to be a lot different from what people said they were and weren’t watching in surveys.

One of the cleverest incentives I’ve heard of was providing the customers under observation with digital cameras or even movie cameras, and inviting the customers to use the cameras to film themselves and their friends using the product in question (I believe it was a sports shoe). That way, the observer and the observation were less obtrusive, and the customer got to use the cameras for other, personal purposes during the observation period, and to keep the resultant footage. The possibilities for getting around the privacy issue and getting cooperation from those you are observing are limited only by your imagination (and your research budget).

Gaining Access

So what do you do when the usage of your product occurs inside personal homes? The Nielsen approach, and the use of cameras and self-filming instead of third-party observation can also address this issue. But let’s consider a specific example:

Suppose you’re a great admirer of Interface Carpets (full disclosure: I’m a great admirer, and I have a few shares in this company). You like the fact that they make cradle-to-cradle carpet products (no virgin material, everything 100% recycled) for the industrial/commercial market, but feel that there is a need for something similar but customized to the residential market. One of the advantages of the Interface model is that their carpet comes in 1′ square pieces, like tile, so that the carpet in areas of heavy wear and with unremovable stains can be replaced without having to replace the entire carpet. You want to see if this model might work in private homes, but how to get inside? Do people still buy carpet for their homes, or is everyone going to hardwood, composites and tile?

You might settle for just visiting the homes of people you know. You might hang out at carpet stores and eavesdrop until you wore out your welcome. You might buy data from an insurance company on what percentage of residential floors have each different kind of flooring (they do compile this data). Now, use a bit more imagination. Who sees the carpet in thousands of people’s homes? Carpet and flooring installers. So you might offer some incentive to an installer to do your observation for you. Even better, you might volunteer to ‘apprentice’ with an installer for free for a couple of months on a part-time basis — the first day on each new job. You help with the grunt work — removing the old carpet, carrying in the supplies etc., and in return you get to gather first-hand information about all the flooring in the homes of people who are replacing their existing flooring — precisely your potential customers. And as ‘apprentice’ you can chat with the homeowner and the installer and ask some questions to feel out the market for your idea.

Defining Your ‘Customers’

Imagination may help you solve the privacy and access issues, but how do you decide which of the millions of potential customers in the ‘public’ to observe?

Here’s where the need/affinity matrix pictured above comes in. There are three steps to sussing out unmet needs to fill:

  • Identifying unmet needs, and understanding why they aren’t being met by incumbent suppliers.
  • Reorganizing those needs as ‘jobs to be done’ [and hence clarifying what is needed]
  • Assessing which groups, communities, affinities (what the people in these groups have in common) need these ‘jobs to be done’ [and hence clarifying who needs these things and why — in what context]

This is a complex process, and one that is often poorly done by researchers and marketers and designers and advertisers who try to reduce this to a merely complicated process. They’re content to know the ‘demographics’ of their users, a very rough cut at segmenting the market for a product. But such demographics leave out or bury the most valuable information, information on why certain groups have this need. Market surveys are inadequate to unearth this information, or even to identify the precise affinity groups that share a particular need. They don’t fit within the parameters of simple/complicated ‘choose one answer’ survey questions.

Observation and one-on-one interviews provide a much richer mine of information about needs. Since your brain, unlike surveys, is capable of embracing complexity, interpreting Customer Anthropology and follow-up interview data can allow you to put together a much more precise need/affinity matrix than most of the big players in any industry would have either the ability or the patience for (what may be a very comfortable and lucrative niche for your business is likely too small and too risky for big competitors stretching for huge, high-margin growth every year).

The graphic above shows an example of this process, the plastic decking (like Eon or Trex) and fencing materials that are eating into the market of outdoor wood decks and wood and metal fences.

A number of years ago, some enterprising individuals identified several unmet needs in this area: Outdoor decks and fences that didn’t need a lot of regular maintenance (painting and repair), were relatively simple to install, and did not use creosote or other preservatives shown to be hazardous to health. The ‘job to be done’ was a safe (to human health) surface for summer recreation or privacy fence that would last a lifetime with no maintenance. None of the existing wood products did this precise job. Two companies in particular, Eon (a 100% recycled plastic product) and Trex (a recycled plastic/wood composite product), developed products that did this job.

They succeeded where others failed because they accurately assessed not only what the ‘job to be done’ was that existing products didn’t do, but precisely who needed that ‘job to be done’ and why. The buying affinity groups weren’t defined by traditional demographics but by (a) their concern for health and safety of their personal recreation and entertainment area (and, to some extent, for the environment) and (b) their lack of time and/or skill for carpentry work. These products were designed, developed and marketed to these specific affinity groups, not to the traditional home-handyman types, as their successful differential strategy canvases, shown below, demonstrates:

As an entrepreneur, deciding which of the millions of potential customers to observe is part of the iterative process of finding the sweet spot where you and your entrepreneurial partners’ talents and passions (your Collective Genius) intersects with what there is an unmet need for. The trick is not getting so enamoured with what your Collective Genius could produce that you don’t ensure there is a real, unmet need for it. And not getting so enthusiastic about finding a solution for a real, unmet need you have uncovered through your research and observation that you end up trying to do something outside your Collective Genius (something you’re not especially good at, or which you don’t really relish the thought of spending a lot of your waking hours doing).

Trust your instincts to know who might have needs that your Collective Genius could address, and therefore who to observe and interview. Trust your instincts, too, to know when your Customer Anthropology is not working, and to try something, or someone, else. And always pay attention: Good anthropologists don’t turn off their observational and listening skills when they go home at night. Some of the world’s greatest ideas have been serendipitous.

And, as I keep emphasizing, I think it’s essential that you not try to do this alone. Collectively you have a lot more Genius than any one person alone can muster. Collectively you have different passions, that allow you and each of your partners to do exclusively what they love. And between you, you have a lot more eyes and ears to observe and research what is needed, and to assess those observations and that researchobjectively.

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