Lessons From The Leading Edge

Dec. 21, 2004
More and more companies put consumers on center stage as subject of observational research designed to spur new-product innovation.

The next time you're driving down the highway and a van with tinted windows travels beside you for a while, smile. You might be getting videotaped as part of a field-observation project designed to collect information for new-product innovation. These candid-camera exercises are just one of several video techniques used by Johnson Controls Inc., a company that designs state-of-the-art automotive seating and interiors, to identify consumer behavior and seating patterns in automobiles. "With information from observational research in hand, our challenge then is to design a vehicle interior to realize what we call 'connecting cars to life,'" says Mike Suman, vice president for worldwide advanced sales, marketing, and business development. "This information is a tremendous resource for us." Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls is hardly alone in its desire to record and understand human behavior in its natural surroundings:

  • When Rubbermaid Inc., Wooster, Ohio (now Newell Rubbermaid Inc., Freeport, Ill.), sent 15 two-person teams to willing consumers' homes to observe home-storage practices, the group returned 300 new-product ideas in just three days.
  • In-plant observation of the use of its semi-conductor test equipment helped uncover an emerging industry trend that allowed LTX Corp., Westwood, Mass., to reorganize the company around one major line of testers rather than two.
  • Steelcase Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., observing interactions in team spaces, created a whole new office design-space concept.
  • Whirlpool Corp., Benton Harbor, Mich., designed a new controls strategy after observing users worldwide.
Sometimes referred to as ethnography, observational research techniques have an anthropological basis, reminiscent of Margaret Mead's studies of African cultures in the '30s and '40s by passive viewing and documentation without interaction. The idea is to capture behaviors, patterns, and lifestyles in context rather than collecting information in other admittedly sterile, moderated ways such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups. "In most cases what you get out of focus-group sessions [are] very shallow levels of problem solving," says Charles Jones, director of global product design and consumer understanding at Whirlpool. "It doesn't drill down deep enough into details to give the kinds of ideas you'd like to have for real innovation." Recently Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., has been doing much more video ethnography, "not so much to understand what people do, but to understand who they are and how they live," says Paul Malboeuf, manager of global advanced-products research. "There is something much more real and immediate to the users of the information in seeing and interacting with the people in their own environment. Allowing the designers and engineers to experience who the target customers are and to understand how those customers may differ from you has led to a different perspective and mind-set for the people who are planning and designing our products." The fact is many people don't know what they want and are poor reporters of their own behavior. Observational ethnographic techniques address both issues. Whether capturing people at home, in the car, at work, or at play, ethnographers interested in driving new-product innovations look for work-arounds, improvised solutions, and contradictions between what people do and what they say they do. "Consumers are performing all kinds of operations they don't even realize they are performing, and engaging in many forms of compensatory behavior," says Whirlpool's Jones. "Consumers will actually deny doing something like bending over during a laundry operation, when videotapes clearly show they are doing so. We view these unarticulated needs as product-improvement opportunities and apply usability engineering to make products more intuitive and easier to use at the onset." Video ethnography is applied at Johnson Controls to help create products that meet a basic growth objective of helping automakers differentiate their vehicles with new interior designs and capabilities. For instance, in an event staged for videotaping, consumers were recruited to load large, bulky items into automobile trunks and the backs of minivans. "I think 75% of all the companies we do business with are now going to put trunk organizing systems in their vehicles," says Suman. "It all started with observations of how people use storage areas in their vehicle." In-vehicle observations are conducted with four small cameras placed strategically in a car, with a family asked to go about its daily life. "We may ask them to go through a McDonald's drive-through or pick up dry cleaning,'" says Beth Pincura, director of marketing research. Capturing these slices of lifestyle helps Johnson Controls link products with behavior in the automobile. Watching women fumble through their purses on the passenger-side seat while driving, for example, led to more accommodating center-console designs and organizers built into a fold-down passenger seat. "The automotive companies have an expectation that suppliers like us have an understanding of the market and the consumers for the products that we make," Pincura adds. "Our observational techniques help tie the whole story together from the market to the product to our customers. It gives them the trust and justification that these are the right products for their vehicles. It's very powerful." One advantage of taped observations is their reusability, the opportunity to view them from a different perspective to yield other insights. To facilitate access, Johnson Controls worked with Interactive Solutions Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., which puts all video clips in a CD-ROM database that is searchable by a myriad of attributes. "Now a product designer, marketer, or engineer can type in 'female,' 'age X,' 'income range of Y' and ask for all observations of them using a trunk-organizing system," says Suman. "It will go out and retrieve all the bits of video we have generated and put them right on your desktop PC." Video ethnography has found a home at Steelcase, a manufacturer of office furniture and workspace environments. "We look for patterns of behavior that evolve over time," says Jim Keane, vice president for R&D. With video cameras focused on a workspace for a day or a week, traffic and interaction patterns are captured and viewed in time lapse, making it easier to analyze than in real time. The same workspaces can be arranged in different ways and the behaviors driven by the setups observed. In one such experiment, called Caves & Commons, a workspace was arranged with private, personal workstations surrounding a team space with movable tools and furniture, and the cameras rolled. "We watched formal meetings and informal gatherings," says Keane. "Sometimes two people would meet, start talking, others would join for a while, then leave, then return. So we were able to identify dynamics of the team space. When we asked people how they used the team space, they mentioned the formal meetings, yet we observed the unofficial meetings which were also important uses of the area." The result of the Caves & Commons exercise was a workspace design concept called Pathways that includes a lot of informal team spaces, with white boards on a beam-and-post system, so people can make points and negotiate. The boards then can be removed or swung out of the way when sessions are complete. "Observational techniques are designed to help tease out the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do, what they say they need and what they really need," says Keane. Other ethnography techniques used at Steelcase include video shadowing and beeper studies. In shadowing, people actually are followed with a camera rolling, like a television investigative reporter, though no one punches the camera out of the way. "We have to gain entrance into what we call 'communities of practice,'" says Joyce Bromberg, Steelcase director of environments and advanced applications. "Shadowing lets us do that with one camera, rather than just having a fixed camera in one place." In a beeper study, Bromberg gives subjects a beeper, logbook, and disposable camera and asks them to go about their workday. When the beeper goes off, the log book instructs them to take a picture of where they are, and answer questions such as, "What are you doing now?" A variation might simply instruct them to take pictures of where they do their concentrated work, where they gossip, or where they find information. Ford used a variation of this self-documentation, asking consumers to take a picture of everything they'd like to have in their cars. "We got a lot of pictures of toilets," notes Malboeuf. A most dramatic twist on self-documentation was an exercise conducted by IDEO, Palo Alto, Calif.-based design consultants, on behalf of a maker of implantable heart-defibrillating equipment. Each member of the design team was fitted with a beeper for an extended period and instructed to react to a beep as if having an episode. The instructions were to fall down if standing and to be jolted upright if lying down. One person in the study was carrying a baby, another using a circular power saw when they were beeped. "Never in my life did I realize how much these people live in fear," said one of the participants. "This exercise allowed designers to understand more about the product in the context of the user's life," says Jane Fulton Suri, director of human factors at IDEO. "In the past all the product-development emphasis had been on compactness, performance, and ease of implantation." The beeper exercise led to suggestions for a function to predict the next hours of heart activity so patients could possibly anticipate episodes. Ethnographic research also holds promise for revolutionary, game-changing innovation, a chance to wipe the slate clean. Applied at Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, Mass., these techniques are driving new-product platforms to power the company into the 21st century. A nine-month ethnographic evaluation of consumers helped Polaroid create new "frameworks of understanding" and gain new insights, says Tom Burchard, director of industrial design. "These results helped us paint an opportunity matrix for the company looking quite far ahead. Then we map this against technology to understand how you can position new products in the marketplace that will cause people to use things differently." In the past product development at Polaroid was driven by examining core competencies and making products that leverage that skill and knowledge. "But that's sort of old-school product development," says Burchard. "What we are doing today is identifying a group of people we would like to provide products for and understanding them in their own environment using a combination of these techniques. It's absolutely the thing Polaroid needs to do right now. We're a company that's been resting on past-won laurels for a while, and the time is now to strike and help redefine an industry." In a similar fashion, S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., Racine Wis., observed people scrubbing floors and using other professional cleaning products in 11 countries over a three-month period, gaining 100 user experiences. These observations drove a reinvented line of products and dispensing devices. "Our competitors have not been able to keep up with us over the last two years as we started marketing products based on our observational research," says Carey Zimmerman, director of global business development. Some of the product changes seem obvious (a mobile dispensing system versus a wall mount), "but I think much product development goes on in an evolutionary fashion rather than revolutionary. For this year's model we'll put on a new mirror or fancy turn signal rather than asking do we need a car at all to do this job. Observational research allows us to reenter the market with no history and fresh perspective."

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