The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
     In a fantastic new video, New Venture Mentor, Cate Costadescribes an interesting quagmire about asking customers the “right questions” when trying to make a decision that affects your business.
Let’s say you’re doing some market research before you launch your new line of cell phone cases and you need to choose which colors to produce. You go around asking your target customers which colors they like best. That seems like it should be an obvious question if you’re trying to decide which colors to produce, right? But it may be the wrong question. Maybe people really like the color red but it would clash with too many of their outfits so they wouldn’t want a case that color. Maybe they think orange is a hideous color but they would buy a cell phone case in orange so they’d never lose their phones… “
     Later in her piece, Cate argues that “if you want to get any benefit from the market research you conduct, you need to be sure to ask the right questions” concluding that getting a conversation going is the real core of understanding where market opportunities lie.
     This thinking is exactly right! When it comes time to build your own plan, how do you know what the right questions are to fuel that conversation? What if potential customers don’t know exactly what they want? When we can’t simply ask them, what other ways are to understand the context of a potential customer’s decision making process? This is where design research method comes in.
     This is my 4th post in a series about design research. If you haven’t already, it may be helpful to check out my first three covering:
  1. DR 101: What is design research?
  2. How to prepare for a research project
  3. Design Research: “in the room”

In this post, I’ll dive a little deeper into the theory of DR to explain why we structure things the way we do. If you’re interested in jumping to the next step in the DR process from a program management perspective, I’ll have a post on Synthesis and Share-out soon!

Three Goals

     Lets go back to the cellphone example for a second. We’re interested in understanding what someone will buy not just what they like. This is a critical distinction that requires us to understand three main elements that influence a person’s decision making process:
  1. How people want to feel (reflective understanding)
  2. How people understand things (cognitive understanding)
  3. How people act (behavioral habits)
     Armed with knowledge about these three elements, we can start to frame up a value proposition, design requirements, and messaging that will truly resonate with our market.

1. How do people want to feel?

Most traditional marketing and advertising research is focused on determining feelings that people find desirable and character traits that they’d like to embody. Indeed, understanding how people feel is most important to the way that we message our value proposition – but it can also guide design details of that product as well.

     As humans, we’re capable of a range of emotions, so it is important to remember that we’re trying to understand how a person wants to feel in a certain context. It is dangerous, for instance, to make the assumption that a person who prefers a “premium” experience in one aspect of their life will prefer that experience in all aspects of their lives. On a Friday night, I may want my meal to be “communal” or “rich,” while on Tuesday afternoons I’m more concerned with meals that are “quick” and “cheap.” I may want to feel “adventurous” when I’m thinking about vacation packages, but not when I think about personal finance. “
     Because many of us feel awkward talking about ourselves, one of my favorite ways to understand an interviewee’s aspirations is to ask them about how someone know and respect handles certain situations.  A typical DR conversation may go like this:
Moderator: “Tell me about someone who is really good at managing their finances,”
Interviewee: “Well, my uncle is great at it – I mean, he is really well off, has a big house, drives a Porsche, put all 4 of his kids through college…”
Moderator: “Why do you think he is so successful?”
Interviewee: “Well, I mean, he has a better job than me, but he’s also just always been really smart with money. He invests a lot in, well, I don’t know what they’re called, that stuff is beyond me, ha, but you know, investments and stuff”
     We like talking about the things that are important to them, so by letting the interviewee talk about her uncle, we can learn a lot about how she understands the topic and herself:
  • She views personal wealth as an indicator of good financial management
  • She views outward displays of wealth (big house, Porsche) and the ability to care for family (kids through college) as a sign of “success” 
  • She views the core of this success as being driven by certain characteristics:  knowledge, intelligence, and cleverness
  • She also describes this intelligence in a way that excludes herself: she sees her lack of knowledge in the space as a barrier to her own financial success. 
     If we were messaging to her, we would probably end up with something similar to LearnVest’s messaging which focuses on the belief that “…financial investing is (actually) for everyone.”
     How would we alter this messaging if she told us a story about her religious father who always lends money to people he loves because he knows that they will help him in his times of need? What if she told us about her sister who “never thinks twice about money but somehow it always works out for her?” What if she talked about someone who manages accounts for a business instead of personal wealth?

2. How do people understand things?

     It is a common axiom that it costs ten times as much to get a new customer as to keep a current one. If understanding a customer’s aspirations is the best way to get them started, understanding the way they think is the best way to keep them around.
     This isn’t as simple as just asking. The human brain is not designed to make the objectively rational decisions about everything that it must deliberate. Instead, we operate day-to-day based on the principles of what 20th century cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon called Bounded Rationality.
Bounded rationality is the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the time available to make the decision. Decision-makers in this view act as satisficers who can only seek a satisfactory solution, lacking the ability and resources to arrive at the optimal one
     This is where empathy comes in. It is important for us as researchers to remember that it isn’t our job to educate our interviewees – our job is to see the world through their eyes, even if they are objectively ‘wrong’ about something. Our customers – no matter what we’re selling – are never going to make fully-informed, objectively rational decisions while buying or using our products. It’s our responsibility to understand the bounded rationality that they’re operating under in a few critical moments.
     When we describe the way people understand their actions or context (as opposed to how things actually work) we talk about their “mental model.”
mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems… and doing tasks.
     For instance, in our MedicSana research, we found that many people are more comfortable sending money over the internet using a computer than a phone. Why? “…because computers are more secure than cell phones.”
     Are computers more secure than phones? It doesn’t matter. It is true according to the mental models of our users, and if we want them to use our system we need to consider this truth. In a design sense, this may mean either enabling computer-based money transfers or by taking extra steps in our phone interfaces to educate and reassure people of our attention to security. 

3. How do people actually behave?

     Finally, we want to understand what people actually doAsking people about how they behave is often difficult because, as humans, we usually don’t give it much thought.
     Think for a moment about something that you’ve learned to do – learning to walk, speak, or do a simple arithmetic problem like 2+2. These are hard when we’re first learning them, because they’re new and require a great deal of conscious thought. Through a lot of practice, though, these things become muscle memory. Eventually, we don’t think about the actual actions: “I need to balance on my left foot while moving my right front in front of me” becomes “I want to talk to that person over there,” and our bodies respond accordingly.
     When we’ve learned something so well that we don’t consciously need to think about it, we call this procedural memory:
Procedural memory is memory for the performance of particular types of action. Procedural memory guides the processes we perform and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills, from tying shoes to flying an airplane to reading. Procedural memories are accessed and used without the need for conscious control or attention.
     As Charles Duhigg describes in his book The Power of Habit,* procedural memories are actually stored in our “animal brains” – the oldest and deepest part of our brain that controls motor functions like heartbeat and breathing that we need to survive. Patients with brain damage in their pre-frontal cortex – the section of the brain that is responsible for conscious thought and memory – can still take walks around their neighborhood or cook their favorite meals even if they can’t actually remember why they know these things!
     Have you ever walked into a room without remembering why or accidentally driven to work when you meant to be going somewhere else? That is your procedural memory executing a task that it has stored. Information here is stored longest term and is the hardest to over-write. This is why we say something is “like riding a bike” – riding bikes is a motor skill that, once learned, is stored in this part of the brain and can easily be retreated even years later. 
     This amazing evolutionary trait, however, is a major challenge. If procedural memory is the longest lasting and most robust type of memory, creating products that “stick” requires mapping the new products to habits that people already have. But how do you ask somebody about a task that they literally don’t think about?
     The short answer is to create role-play situations where people can let their procedural memory take over. I’ll talk a little more about this in my next post!

What’s next?

     As with any research, knowing the goal and context of a situation is the first step in developing a plan to find answers. Now that we’re identified three things that we’re looking for in our Design Research sessions, I’ll talk about how the activities we use are specifically designed to overcome these challenges.
     If you’ve missed them, be sure to check out my other posts about how Design Research can help you identify the right value proposition for your market:
  1. DR 101: What is Design Research? – What is design research? Is it the right answer for your business?
  2. DR II: Preparing for Design Research – What to do to get the most out of your Design Research project.
  3. DR III: In the Room – You’ve been invited to participate with the Design Research team – what do you need to know?

How am I doing? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or ask me on twitter @kyle__becker.


More about Me

frog_portrait_Kyle_Becker-119_edit_2 copy_squareI’m currently looking for my next opportunity as a design researcher or scrum product owner. Shoot me an email at gnefkow87@gmail.com.

After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2011 with a degree in Industrial design, I joined frog design as an interaction designer for three years before raising funding and rolling on to MedicSana as full-time CEO, designer, and scrum product owner. I have my Product Owner (PSPO I) and Scrum Master (PSM I) certifications. My full work history is on my linkedin page, or download my resume.

In my free time, I read quite a bit about behavioral economics and on my blog, Knowledge in Society, I write about various topics that discuss the relationship between design research, behavioral economics, and entrepreneurship, including a multi-part introduction to design research. I also love photography, check out my photography portfolio here!