I recently visited the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In a masterfully renovated townhome overlooking Central Park, the museum seeks to provide historical and contemporary perspectives on the impact of design on daily life.
I went to see their exhibition Beautiful Users: Designing for People. The collection explores a relatively new phenomenon of user-centered design. The exhibit includes milestones in “designing for people” including Henry Dreyfuss’ Humanscale project, the prototype handles SmartDesign designed for the Good Grips line as well as the original sketches for the Honeywell round thermostat–the predecessor for the beloved Nest.
The concept of contextual inquiry is deeply embedded in the practice of industrial design. The exhibit demonstrates how having an intimate understanding of the motivations, behaviors, environment and limitations of the user contributes to breakthrough innovation. The best industrial designers are passionate about people. They truly believe that their user is beautiful and that meeting the needs of the user, on their own terms, leads to the most elegant solution.
Can we say the same for marketers?
I worked for JCPenney when Ron Johnson took the helm. While the division I worked for didn’t survive his “reign of error,” I was hopeful that he would apply the same innovative thinking he had employed at Target and Apple to revive a truly beloved American brand. But one thing became clear very early on. Ron Johnson didn’t like the JCPenney customer. He wanted them to be more on trend, tech-savvy and progressive than they actually were. He didn’t believe his customer was beautiful. He thought they were ugly ducklings waiting for him to turn them into middle-class swans.
He was wrong.
As someone who has made a career of marketing to people with stigmatized health conditions, I know it can be easy to fall into a pattern of judgment. I have marketed to the depressed, the overweight, the chronically ill, the poor and the addicted. It can be difficult to truly understand people who don’t live and think like you do.
But as a marketing leader, I’ve learned to nip condescension toward customers in the bud when I hear it from team members, other executives or vendors. Having contempt for your own customer is the most heinous, and fatal, of marketing sins. Once this bitter weed takes root you can guarantee your marketing strategy is about to choke on its own lack of empathy.
So how do you connect to a customer you don’t have anything in common with? Borrow these techniques from industrial designers:
Take Your Personas to the Extreme–Developing user personas have their place, but industrial designers know that representative users don’t effectively represent the needs of true users. It’s often the extreme cases that reveal your product’s best potential for impact. The best way to understand the extremes is by meeting and listening to many, real-life users.
Shadow Your Customer-Walk a mile in their shoes–or work boots, or orthopedic sneakers, or Louboutins–you get the idea. Ask if you can just hang out with a customer for a day. People love to share about themselves and it will give you a chance to understand how your product fits into the larger context of their life. You’ll also experience first-hand the challenges they face everyday.
Prototype for Understanding–Industrial designers spend the majority of their time refining prototypes, making incremental improvements until maximum efficiency and efficacy is achieved. As marketers, we tend toward the “Ta-Da!” method of development. As in, “Ta-Da!-we’ve-made-all-the-choices-already-what-do-you-think?” If you’re struggling to understand what your customer wants or needs, just ask them. By involving them in the process you’ll not only build a better campaign, you’ll build trust as well.
The best marketing campaigns are mirrors, reflecting the reality of a user’s experience, values and desires. Harboring contempt for customers shatters the glass, cutting people with shame and pity–and leaving your brand in shards. Contextual inquiry and ethnography are like marketing Windex–revealing the humanity, and beauty, in every customer.