Do You Think I’m Beautiful?

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.

Cracking the Code: How to Accelerate Strategic Insights

SPOILER ALERT: A bunch of British masterminds cracked the Nazi Enigma code during World War II.

The new movie, The Imitation Game, portrays the true story of the father of modern computer science, Alan Turing, and a band of British cryptologists, as they developed a machine that could translate the ciphers produced by German Enigma machines. The top-secret project, called Ultra, is estimated to have accelerated the end of World War II by two years, saving more than an estimated 14 million lives.

It’s a great film addressing important issues of childhood trauma, personal identity and social tolerance, but it also very accurately depicts the nature of strategic insight. The team is assembled to tackle a truly “wicked” problem–in every sense of the word. They hole up together in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park to save the world with math.

Everyday, they have about 16 hours–from the time the first German messages are intercepted to the time the Enigma machines settings are changed at midnight–to try to crack the code. When Turing finally assembles a machine that has the ability to solve the cipher, it still can’t work fast enough to process all of the possible combinations in time. With more Allied troops and civilians dying with each passing day, the team literally raced the clock to come up with the answers.

And they were getting nowhere fast.

Jump to a scene where the dejected band is relaxing in a pub, throwing back a few pints and doing anything put thinking about the problem. In a casual flirtation, a friend mentions the German radio operator she intercepts messages from always uses the same word to begin his messages. Suddenly, Turing jumps from his seat–electrified by a strategic insight. Like Archimedes in the bathtub, he has a “Eureka! moment” that provides him with the final piece of the puzzle that helps him see the solution clearly.

What Creative Problem-Solving Really Looks Like

We’ve been led to believe that the best way to solve a problem is to get everyone into the biggest conference room for a brainstorming session. We announce the challenge and then everyone throws their best ideas into the ring. The “solution” reached is most likely a compromise. But The Imitation Game does a great job demonstrating the realities of successful creative problem-solving:

Correct problem definition
While others were trying to translate encrypted messages, Turing defined the problem differently. He was trying to build a machine that could decode the settings of the Enigma machine and, subsequently, decrypt all the messages. Correctly defining the problem allows teams to concentrate on the root issues that lead to strategic insights and game-changing results.

Solution generation by a diverse team
While the movie portrays Turing as the socially-stunted, brilliant mathematician that he was, he did not solve Enigma on his own. Various people from different backgrounds (even a woman, for Pete’s sake!) were brought onto the team to provide different perspectives on possible solutions. Together, they contributed ideas that ultimately informed the solution.

Frustration to the point of giving up
Sitting in a room constantly thinking about a problem can be counterproductive. However, history records many serendipitous moments when, frustrated by their lack of progress, people stopped thinking about the problem and lo, and behold–while they were walking, running, taking a shower, fishing, singing in the church choir, drinking a beer–they experienced a strategic insight.

The certainty of strategic insight
One of the defining characteristics of a true strategic insight is that it comes with great certainty. A strategic insight will feel like a “slap-yourself-on-the-forehead” good idea that was right in front of you all along. With that certainty, it is easy to galvanize an insight-driven team to take the next step.

Imitating “The Imitation Game”

Want to imitate the results you see in The Imitation Game to crack the code on your own Enigma? Here’s how:

1. Take time to clearly define the problem.
Use a tool like Toyota’s Five Whys to help you get to the root issues of the challenges you are experiencing. As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.”

2. Assemble a diverse team to generate possible solutions.
You need both experts and novices on your team. If everyone on the team thinks exactly alike, the chances of unearthing a revolutionary insight are slim. Search for analogous problems in other industries and bring in an outsider to provide a fresh perspective.

3. Allow the team to spend time together and time alone to encourage insights.
The best insights are achieved by a combining past knowledge, application of lateral expertise, fresh perspectives and time. Don’t rush the solution, be patient with the process.

4. When lightning strikes, capture the energy!
When a strategic insight occurs, act on it immediately. Use the certainty that comes with a strategic insight to gain momentum in executing your solution.


Value Proposition Design (Wiley, 2015)

In this follow-up to their seminal book, Business Model Generation, Osterwalder, et. al. dive into the value proposition block of the business model canvas with a visual, step-by-step guide for generating, testing and implementing value propositions.