|Last spring I wrote about Bill Buxton:
Many years ago, when e-mail and Internet access were just becoming the norm in business, I met a guy named Bill Buxton, who was then with Alias Research. His passion was trying to make virtual ‘presence’ imitate, as much as possible, physical ‘presence’, to get the technology to adapt to our preferred information behaviours, instead of the other way around.
Bill’s mantra was:
Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the “things” that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.
To that end, he had computer screens around a circular table in his office, each showing the head and shoulders, and the computer desktop, of one his meeting participants, so that virtual meetings were as analogous as possible to ‘real’ meetings. He had another screen above his office door with a picture of a door on it, that he could virtually ‘open’ or ‘close’ to signify whether he was, or was not, available for impromptu e-consultations and e-conversations.
It was a little hokey, but Bill was (and still is, in his new work) on the right track.
Since then, Bill has moved forward with his work on the Customer Experience and written a book called Sketching User Experiences. The concept of ‘sketching’ is summarized in the graphic above. It is a “low-fidelity representation” of the customer experience that is detailed enough to provide context for how the customer lives/works/uses your product, but short enough that it doesn’t consume inordinate time to do so. The video (1:26:00 in length) explaining this in detail is here. He’s very entertaining, though the technical quality of the video is not great, and the first half is more valuable than the last half, IMO.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
This approach seems to work well for technology companies (hardware and software producers) but suppose your ‘product’ is, say, research reports, or improved health outcomes for your community? Can you ‘sketch’ new product design ideas using Buxton’s techniques?
I think you can. And I think that’s where the idea of customer anthropology comes in. This anthropology is one of the techniques you use to research unmet customer needs. The transcription of the customer observations and interviews is a kind of “sketch” of your customers, and the needs that your enterprise might fill. But this isn’t what Buxton is getting at when he talks about sketching — he’s referring to the process of ideation to address those needs.
In my new job, we’re starting to use customer anthropology to get a deeper understanding of our customers. We’ve identified about 15 distinct customer ‘segments’ with clearly different needs for the five types of research ‘products’ we offer:
As regular readers know, I generally tend to believe that things are the way they are for a reason, and before I propose changing things I want to make sure I understand those reasons. So my hypothesis is that the current design of these products is pretty good. But my instincts tell me that, like most products out there, the design could be much better.
So I’m going to try to develop “sketches” of possible new designs for our five types of products, that draw on understanding how the current design has evolved, and on the results of our customer anthropology into what our customers want and need that they are not currently getting. I’d love to get Bill Buxton, a fellow Torontonian, involved in the process, to see how his technique translates to non-technology product design.
I suspect I may have to ‘hire’ a sketch artist, though I’m certainly going to scour our organization to see if we have some hidden talent in this area.
If this is successful, it could become the standard ‘front end’ to our ideation and innovation process– the means by which we respond in a consistent, disciplined and creative way to identified unmet customer needs and develop new and better products.
What do you think? Is this a process that might work in your industry? Is there a sketch artist in your future?
Category: The Innovation Process
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