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Digital business designers

Uncovering the unknown

Every savvy business these days invests in building an understanding of their customers before taking strategic decisions. We live in an age where the customer’s power is ascendant and there’s no sign of that reversing — nor should it. So how do we make organisations more customer-centric?

Mark Wilson
Managing Partner & CEO

Live service data provides an incredible resource for tracking behaviour, seeing exactly how, when and what customers are doing. Today’s insight teams have access to authentic reporting, but what this resource doesn’t communicate is the why behind each interaction. Data alone is rarely a great tool for understanding the customer or their needs; it’s primarily a way to gain knowledge of what they currently do, or don’t do.

Traditionally, market research has been used as the backbone of building customer understanding to power the big strategic decisions. Techniques ranging from surveys to focus groups are used to build customer profile data in a variety of forms. Considered statistically robust in most cases, this type of research has powered the strategic decisions of organisations for generations.

No-one ever got fired for basing a big decision on something that ‘78% of our customers consider important or very important’. Perhaps, in future, they should be.

Traditional research techniques are only good at documenting known characteristics. Increasingly, all of the real innovation potential lies in the unknown.

What you don't know might save you

One of our recent projects highlighted perfectly how focusing on understanding customers can uncover the sort of insights that lead to meaningful innovation.

We received a brief from a longstanding and very successful client that runs a range of high-value B2B digital services for professional customers worldwide. It read:

“We’re bombarding our customers with communications from our services: we’re concerned that they’re becoming overwhelmed with them, they’re ignoring them because they’re not very good, and are using those services less than they should as a result.”

They had run a series of customer research programmes over the previous year and the most recent global survey had told them that customers were dissatisfied with the communications from their services. They asked us to help them understand what was going wrong and how to fix it.

We set out a programme built around design research, using design inputs and stimulus to help uncover how customers were behaving, what their needs were and where there were new opportunities to provide a better service.

The first step was to build a real-world view of what was happening at the customer end on a daily basis. We recruited dozens of customers around the world for an initial diary study to help us understand what information they were receiving and what they were doing with it. We planned to speak to each customer during the study to understand a little more about what they’d sent us. By the end of a couple of weeks, we expected to have a good picture of what was going on.

A few days in, it was clear that something strange was happening. Our diary study showed no entries. Zero. The first few customers we’d spoken to had no recollection of their last communication from our client or the services to which they were subscribed. A little more digging showed that the problem was the polar opposite of what we’d been led to expect: customers were underwhelmed, not overwhelmed.

Alarmingly, most were using services from direct competitors to plug the gaps in what they received from our client. It was clear that the problem was not only the inverse of what our client assumed, it was far more acute and dangerous than they’d expected.

Over the next three weeks, we explored these strategically vital problems from a different perspective. Instead of investing in understanding any more about the current state, we jumped straight to a focus on an ideal future state, uncovering some startling new insights along the way.

Using sketched concepts, discussed and iterated each day with a series of customers around the world, we were able to identify major competitive flaws and opportunities for entirely new digital platforms. These discussions also revealed requirements for organisational change, and even the need for a new board-level appointment.

The importance of the unknown

The outcomes have had major strategic implications for our client. Our approach identified not only fixes for existing problems, but also major new commercial opportunities and concepts for a series of innovative new services. Few, if any, of these outcome would have been generated by traditional research.

To quote the project’s sponsor after reviewing the final outputs from the project:

We thought we were going to fix something relatively small and we’ve ended up rethinking our strategy. I can’t help thinking about what the impact would have been if we hadn’t found all of this out.

Innovation can, in many ways, be best defined as the process of uncovering opportunistic insights and then acting on them to gain competitive advantage.

The challenge for every organisation is that their potential to innovate is bound up in uncovering these powerful (and often unexpected) insights — insights that can highlight hidden problems, identify new opportunities, or spark new ideas.

To innovate successfully, organisations need to uncover these unknown opportunities bound up in their customers. No insight, no innovation.

So what is design research?

Design research takes a very different approach to traditional research programmes. It typically involves target customers plus stakeholders and staff, because there is often incredibly valuable knowledge buried away in internal teams too. We engage people in conversations, form hypotheses, design potential outcomes and explore their impact with customers.

The aim is to get people to think differently by responding to new things, rather than by analysing existing ones. The focus is on exploring the ideal future state, not auditing the current state. The process is fluid, iterative and built on interpretation rather than analysis.

Discussions are frequently allowed to stray off- topic (unsurprisingly, this is often where the most unexpected insights are uncovered). Engaging, informal discussions replace structured interviews — because who has ever behaved naturally in an interview? There are no statistics, no spreadsheets and no graphs.

Insight you can actually use

Design research leads to practical outputs. One of our basic principles for design research is that we create visual or interactive outputs that can be taken into implementation the next day.

The output from many of the design research activities we conduct would be unrecognisable as the outputs from a typical research programme. Visuals, diagrams and prototypes sit amongst the insights that inspired them. The output is as likely to be a 10-foot poster as it is a presentation.

The insight gained is more likely to produce the concept of a new service than it is highlight minor flaws in a current service. In other words, it’s more likely to lead to a major innovation than a minor fix.

Insight with commercial purpose

It’s important to recognise that in design research the output of the research itself should never be the end goal. Its value is in its application, as a critical component in the strategy and design processes that drive innovation. It is best used when there is a tangible need with a commercial focus.

As a result, this type of research is usually conducted as part of forward-looking programmes for senior product owners, direction-setters or strategic leaders.

We’ve used design research to uncover insights that have helped revitalise a stagnating service, identify new opportunities for organisations facing increased competitive pressure, correct declining revenues, grow entirely new audiences and launch new service concepts. It has fuelled far-reaching digital strategies as often as it has led to the creation of a new product.

On every occasion, this impact has been driven by uncovering the unknown.

A tool for strategic innovation

Design research is one of the most powerful innovation tools at our disposal, used by progressive organisations to inform the type of strategic thinking that used to rely on old-school market research.

Every organisation needs to uncover the unknown opportunities bound up in its customers. Design research can generate remarkable insights that inspire innovation and drive future growth.

Imagine what you could do with all the things you don’t know.

Principles of successful design research

  • Owned by senior leaders, not research teams.
  • Treat research participants as people rather than subjects.
  • Design visual or interactive concepts to act as stimulus.
  • Facilitate a conversation rather than conduct an interview or run a test.
  • Look for points of inspiration rather than validation.
  • Focus on the most valuable insight not the most representative results.
  • Get to know a small sample well rather than a large group at surface level.
  • Always ensure that outputs are tangible and immediately actionable.
  • Focus on what comes next: design research outputs are never the end objective.

You already know that your customers are using world-class digital services all day long. If yours don’t stack up to the best, you don’t have a future.


Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Managing Partner & CEO at Wilson Fletcher, a business innovation consultancy that helps established companies design the strategies, services and experiences needed to succeed in the digital economy.

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.