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Digital business designers

How to design for the customers of tomorrow

When envisioning the futurestate of a company or a service, we’re usually faced with the challenge of designing for a customer that doesn’t exist yet. What do we mean by this? Well, they exist in the obvious sense, they’re just not ‘there’ yet.

Mark Wilson
Managing Partner & CEO

If, in the 90s we’d surveyed people to see if they’d rent out their houses to strangers, they would have largely answered no. Their future selves, with the launch of AirBnB, seem to have turned on a dime. Likewise, if we’d asked them if they’d routinely jump in a stranger’s car after a night out, the answer would also have been no.

Because, of course, none of us know what choices we’ll make, or behaviours we’ll display, in the future.

So how can we design for people that we can’t talk to yet?

It’s an interesting problem; how to anticipate how a future customer might behave. It turns out that, for all meaningful purposes, we can get pretty close. Remember, futurestate design is near-future-ambitious, not far-future-whimsical. Remember, too, that the biggest breakthroughs come when we enable a new behaviour in people, rather than when we simply meet a current need or fix a current pain-point.

The old way is to fix what we can see.

Traditionally, a company would conduct research with today’s customers to determine their current and anticipated needs. While customer-centricity is still far from ubiquitous business behaviour, most companies conduct customer research in some form or other, and for many operational purposes it’s invaluable information. Any product team worth a damn should be speaking to customers every day.

However, use this type of research as a basis for futurestate thinking and it will lead to an extremely constrained view of how a future customer will likely behave. In fact, it’s so convincing to hear something in a customer’s voice, that it can lead to full-on blindness to disruptive threats and, equally, to where opportunities for something genuinely new might exist.

It’s worth remembering that most of the legendary disruption stories involve companies who were at the forefront of customer research, yet were still surprised when those customers flocked to something else.

Why is it so limiting? Because in the same way as organisations carry their legacy behaviours with them, so do customers — that oft-quoted ‘faster horse’ scenario is very much alive and well. People, for the most part, naturally think of what would be better than they have today. Their expectations are defined by what they have.

So we have to find ways to look beyond the better/faster/smarter/cheaper evolutionary mindset and envision the potential future mindset of a target customer. We can achieve this by exploiting a fascinating change in the way that people’s expectations and attitudes are defined.

Our expectations of one are defined by our experiences of many.

It used to be that your expectations as a customer were defined by the standards of the sector or subject of the service you were using. It made perfect sense to evaluate the standard of one service against others like it because we all accessed them in such discrete ways. We didn’t compare a dry cleaners with a bookstore, or an accountants with a physiotherapist, or travel insurance with a newspaper. Mentally they were compartmentalised into distinct buckets defined by their function.

Well, those divisions don’t exist any more. In the digital age, this compartmentalised behaviour has changed, dramatically.

Each new innovation or improvement that we experience as a customer sets a new bar for all of the services we use, not just those that are peers or competitors — because we access those services in progressively more consistent ways; via multiple apps on our phone, for example. Our earlier mental models of subject or purpose-based subdivisions are evaporating as our access to services converge on digital devices.

The digital devices that we rely on for an enormous amount of everyday life now have led us to form one ever-evolving meta-expectation from all of our service experiences.

Your expectations of a bank are now directly influenced by your experience of a ride hailing company. We don’t make a distinction between services in the way we used to: we judge everything by everything else, and our behaviours change constantly to reflect an overall standard of what is acceptable to us (like sharing personal data) or expected by us (like frictionless payments).

Today’s great experience is tomorrow’s baseline expectation, and we can use that to help define what our future customer design target should be like by casting our research net wider to consider influences on behaviour more comprehensively — and imaginatively.

You have to take a break from the ‘they’ll never do that’ mindset.

Exploring and articulating holistic experience influences — with the individual in the centre of that holistic view — is a powerful tool in futurestate design exercises. By demonstrating that what seems like a radical shift in behaviour in our future customer really is not — because that very behaviour is already very much adopted by them elsewhere — we can get much closer to their futurestate customers’ mindset.

Think of it this way: over the next few years, what behaviours might become acceptable, or commonplace, that would open up entirely new ways for your company to service customers? The best way to figure that out is to cast your research net widely, from understanding what behaviours are driving the success of fast-growing startups to speaking to people who are far outside of your usual domain. Look for the outliers.

Take as your working assumption that if people are, say, already allowing a relatively unknown startup’s algorithm to take money automatically from their bank account by learning and tracking their spending habits, then you might be able to leverage that behaviour too. It’s basically collecting emerging patterns today to use as fuel for thinking about your own future.

This approach establishes an entirely different frame of reference for how you might service customers and can unlock an enormous amount of inventive, progressive thinking — even in people whose incoming attitude is ‘they’ll never do that’, or ‘that’ll never happen’. Entrenched beliefs, and rigid mindsets about what customers will accept, quickly fall away when you construct that holistic ‘meta-expectation’ picture of the futurestate customer’s mindset.

Sector or product-based expectations are only relevant to short-term thinking. If you only look at today’s competitors, or speak to today’s customers, you’ll never achieve a real breakthrough. By conducting research into services that would be considered irrelevant commercially but are highly relevant behaviourally, you can articulate a futurestate behavioural benchmark that helps everyone involved step out of current state ‘they’ll never do that’ constraints, and into the ‘what if?’ mindset that is so critical to any form of innovation.

Build your view of tomorrow’s customer on research, not hope.

Futurestate design should never rely on science fiction or fantasy. Its value lies in envisioning an achievable target vision of the future, not in pretending that anything can be done. Sometimes we need to push the envelope a little further (for example, anticipating the use of a new technology that doesn’t have a large scale application yet) but that’s rare. Usually, we stand back from the futurestate experiences we capture in our work with clients and we are all confident of achieving them without first inventing unobtanium.

That applies to customers equally: don’t construct a fictional persona as a design target based on your hopes and dreams for what they might be. Do the research and build a view of the customer that your futurestate company will serve, based on rationale and sensible inferences. Infer, but don’t imagine their behaviour.

The time to apply imagination and lateral thinking is in how you might exploit those characteristics: the aim is to liberate creative thinking by releasing some of the constraints of today.

Breadth and diversity always get the best results.

When we work with teams to envision the futurestate of their company, we always fuel the thinking process with insights from services and experiences beyond their own sectors. We watch long-held views on what’s impossible, or will never be adopted by customers, fall away and we see their creative brains switch on as they get excited about the opportunities presented by tomorrow’s customer.

So, don’t limit how you think about your future customer by what they can tell you today — whether in-person or via data. They might be the same basic human as they are today, but they’ll behave very differently in a few years’ time and you need to get your brain closer to that person than today’s.

Between now and then their expectations of, and attitudes towards, your futurestate services will be the product of a diverse range of influences. Most of those will come from experiences far outside of your domain, so don’t be afraid to look far and wide to build a picture of where they might end up.

That thing you think that they’ll never do? We bet they’re doing it right now.

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