Identifying Latent Needs: The Key to High Performance Design

“Apple never holds focus groups. It doesn’t ask people what they want; it tells them what they’re going to want next.”

This quote, which appeared in a Time magazine’s  feature on the late Steve Jobs and the launch of the iPad, may seem a little arrogant, after all “the customer is always right” and we seem to admire people who know what they want.  But is it more a case that people seem to know what they want, but actually never really do.  Much of our perception that people know what they want may come from our admiration for the strong characters we see in the cinema.  In Story screenwriting coach Robert McKee outlines the difference between a cinema character and a real person.

“A character is no more a human being than the Venus de Milo is a real woman.  A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human nature.  We relate to characters as if they are real, but they are superior to reality.  Their aspects are designed to be clear and noble, whereas our fellow human beings are often a blur, difficult to understand if not enigmatic.  We know characters better than we know our friends, because a character is eternal and unchanging, while people shift.  Just when we think we understand them we don’t.  In fact I know Rick Blaine in Casablanca better than I know myself.  Rick is always Rick, I’m a bit iffy.”

Well if we are so iffy it should come as no surprise that the most successful companies are able to identify what we need without any direct requests or prompting.  In The Riddle Andrew Razeghi tells us that, “Some things in life just make sense: disposable diapers, cordless phones, Kevlar.  Although these products are indisputably superior to those that existed prior to their introduction, like all other great ideas, they were initially met with an inkling of scepticism….The paradox of innovation is that before ideas are introduced we rarely see the need for them.”

As noted by Apple the conventional methods of market research are not necessarily the best way of achieving a ground breaking innovation.  IDEO boss Tim Brown points out that these methods lead to incremental improvement but nothing more.  Ground breaking and innovative services and products are only possible by “helping people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have.”  This is only possible by engaging in empathic research.  For more than a decade IDEO and other design companies such as Continuum have used psychologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers to identify these latent needs.

Empathic research was pioneered by psychologist Jane Fulton Suri.  In Glimmer Warren Berger tells the story of how she used her skill set to diagnose for the British Government why so many people were chopping off their toes when using their lawnmowers.  Through re-enacting what happened, direct observation, and non-judgemental discourse, Fulton Suri put herself in their shoes and discovered that they were using the lawnmower in a fashion similar to the hoovers they resembled.  In some cases people were even wearing flip flops or slippers as they cut the grass.  Her findings led to the Government establishing a number of safety standards with regard to built in safety features on lawnmowers.   Fulton Suri decided that her talents would be better used anticipating needs as opposed to diagnosing why things happened after the event and proposing solutions, and joined the design team at IDEO.

This design research approach of Fulton Suri and IDEO has been adopted across the design industry.  Davin Stowell, co-founder, of Smart Design, designed the OXO Good Grips peeler (see below) as a result of observing his wife’s discomfort when using her arthritic hand to peel potatoes. In an interview with Warren Berger, Stowell told how he and his colleagues paid numerous trips to the local arthritis foundation, and through conversation and observing how they worked with their hands came up with a design that was a lot more comfortable to use.  Stowell knew that they were on to something good with their eventual design because “as soon as you looked at it you just wanted to squeeze it.”

OXO Good Grips Peeler

What would Jane Fulton Suri or Davin Stowell do if they were approached by a mobile phone / internet service provider to help them develop new services?  Well I don’t know exactly where they would start but my guess is that the first place they would look is the customer service call centre.  Customer call centres are brilliant sources of customer intelligence.  A day listening to calls can give you a clearer understanding of customer needs as well as highlighting co-ordination breakdowns across your organisation.  A number of years back I spent some time analysing such calls and was stunned by what I came across.  On one engagement we discovered that the organisation’s marketing literature was far too complex due to the nature and number of queries on the topic.  Elsewhere we discovered that elderly people weren’t calling because they had significant problems with the service, but because they were lonely and wanted someone to talk to.

By listening to the calls of a number of users across a number of customer segments as well as directly observing and empathising with them as they use the service, Fulton Suri and Stowell would possibly come up with a number of valuable and unique insights.  These insights would potentially lead to the development of a groundbreaking service that in hindsight would appear so obvious and simple that the client would wind up resenting paying them their consulting fee.

Outside of business are there other areas where direct observation and empathy could have an effect?  In sport substitutes spend considerable periods observing progress on the field.  Some of them make a difference when they come on as they can see where openings and weaknesses lie.  For example, the 1999 Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich saw two substitutes have a dramatic affect on the result.  As the match entered injury time Manchester United were trailing their German rivals by a goal to nil.   Teddy Sheringham, who was introduced in the 67th minute, equalized in the 91st minute.  In the dying seconds Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had come on in the 80th minute, scored the winner from a flick on by Sheringham.   In the Ireland v England 2010 Six Nations Championship match at Twickenham Irish outside half Ronan O’Gara steadied a flagging team and directed their recovery having spent the first 70 minutes of the match on the bench.  Ireland ran out eventual winners by 20-16 having trailed by three points with 7 minutes remaining.  Could Jane Fulton Suri design a programme or set of practices that helps substitutes to improve their observation in order to improve impact when they finally come on?  How many players sit on the bench and day dream when they could be doing something more productive? Conversely could the most effective sports substitutes be naturals at identifying latent needs?

The ability to identify latent needs will be an increasingly important one for all companies as they struggle to adapt to an environment awash with choice for the consumers they are fighting for.   While its importance has only been acknowledged through increased research and coverage over the past few years this chilling example taken from Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers shows that it’s a talent that has always been around.

“…the reality of the war called for hundreds of thousands of simple death machines to be placed in willing hands.  The OSS, in a perfection of that logic, manufactured the Liberator, a single shot pistol with one bullet and cartoon instructions overcoming literacy and language barriers, then spread thousands of them throughout occupied Europe.  It was the perfect assassination weapon, meant for the man or woman whose anger had outdistanced caution to the point where he or she would kill up close.”


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