Watching the Academy Awards last month, I was struck by how disappointingly similar all the ads were. If it had been tested, my recall rate would have been abysmal. If I weren’t in the agency business (and hadn’t bet on who would win), I would’ve recorded the show to avoid the ads.
So much advertising today feels like stock photography. Generic. Predictable. Unreal. Why the sameness? How do we avoid that trap? We’ve been obsessing over this issue at my company for quite a while.
The solution is real insight and inspiration. Fresh and new cut through.
Many tools analyze customers, but do we really understand them? From what I see, in most cases we don’t. We observe customers from a distance, through two-way mirrors or in black-and-white PowerPoint presentations. Where’s the empathy? Where’s the emotion?
Too often, we read the statistics, make assumptions, and produce. We don’t observe. Think. Most important, feel. We’ve stripped “empathy” from our vocabulary.
At my company, we focus on building empathy as the key to insight and inspiration. We felt we needed to go the next step, really challenge our people and our way of thinking. We found Cynthia Hathaway, a Dutch-trained designer and educator, to help us. Her award-winning product designs are in the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, and she’s an active designer with Droog Design in Amsterdam. She’s also artistic director of the FunLab, a masters course in experience design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
Hathaway employs the concept of empathy widely in her work and curriculum. For instance, she went to an airport and bought suitcases from the lost and found. She handed them out in class, telling students to open them and to assume, then build on, the identity they found in the suitcases… for a whole semester!
Hathaway created a unique program for us. Employees from all disciplines meet in Las Vegas to explore the seven deadly sins (what better place to observe people, real and raw, than in Las Vegas?). We spent a day reviewing thoughtful art and design projects that looked deep below the surface of everyday things and talked about persona development and experience design.
We then jumped into an immersion exercise. We split up into small groups, took one sin and a short persona description of the target customer, and went into the field to find our sinners. The objective was to observe them, talk to them as people (not research subjects), learn everything we could, and document the experience with our digital cameras. After, we linked what we learned with a key brand we were assigned and talk about how we would market to the target. The results were stunning and unexpected. Definitely fresh.
We learned more than I can write about in a couple of paragraphs, but here some highlights:
- Stop. This is critical. Make time to think, observe, and learn. Build that time into your plans. Our time-pressed, task-driven, deliverable-oriented world often undervalues thinking time.
- Reorient your research process so your analysis-to-emotion ratio isn’t 50:1. Don’t just read reports, observe real people. Knowing the latest statistics on your market is important, but that can never give you the richness or detail you get observing real people or listening to customer service calls.
- Dig deep. Look below the surface. When the groups reported back, we agreed the activity seemed very easy at first. Who couldn’t find greed, envy, or lust in Las Vegas? It’s everywhere, and on the surface, or so our teams thought. We were wrong. We had to dig deep to find greed, and we found it in some unlikely places.
- Challenge your beliefs. Assumptions about your customers can shield you from their reality. Try to prove yourself wrong and see what happens. Each team found its going-in assumptions about the sin and target were off the mark. Digging deeper yielded important clues about the target persona that weren’t immediately apparent.
- Be open to inspiration. The best ideas come from unlikely places. Be open to finding answers to your toughest business challenges from anyone and anywhere. Some agencies delegate developing great ideas to the creative department. We know great ideas can come from anyone. Get your teams together. Use an observation exercise to mobilize your team. Be open. Expect great ideas, and they’ll flow.
This was a superb learning experience for me. It helped me, and our company, taste the power of empathy. We are entering a new era of experience design that calls for a new approach. And that approach must be centered on a true understanding of the customer.
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