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issue: February 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Designing for the Heart and Mind

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by Stephanie Husk, president of Deep Blue Insight

A widely accepted theory in new product development is the “consumer-centric” approach—designing products that meet people’s needs and fill their desires. Unfortunately, logical theories don’t always translate well into actual practice.

Many manufacturers are lulled into the trap of designing only for the low-hanging fruit and creating products that meet only the surface-level needs. Often, this is the result of uninspired consumer research and the “quick and easy” focus group study.

To develop truly breakthrough new products, companies need to look beyond consumers’ rational needs. People make decisions based on emotional desires, as well as rational reasons—what the heart desires, the mind will find a way to justify. Much of the purchasing decision-making process is done on a subconscious, emotional level, far below the reach of rational reasoning. Some experts estimate that 95 percent of all decisions are made in the subconscious. It’s no surprise that a focus group—a clinical, controlled setting with eight complete strangers vying for time to talk—is unlikely to yield much insight or reveal true consumer motivations.

In new product development, the first step should be to truly understand the people who will, hopefully, decide to buy what a company produces. One way to reach them is to conduct research based on a modified ethnographic approach—observing people in their natural environment creates understanding of how they use their products and services. Widely used by anthropologists for years, ethnography is relatively new in market research applications.

In ethnographic market research, interviewers may shop with people, watch them as they put away their groceries, hang out with them as they prepare meals, or observe them as they clean up their kitchens. They tour their homes to see how they clean (and what they don’t clean), what they keep in their cabinets and out on the counters, and how they use their appliances. From these observations, designers have developed products that meet needs that consumers didn’t know they even had—needs that would never be articulated in a focus group.

A company that manufactures kitchen and bath products (sinks, toilets, etc.) had commissioned a segmentation study intended to provide the basis for all new product development initiatives. One of the segments emerged as the perfect target audience for a division of this company. The division’s design team read the analysis, which was composed of standard demographics: participants were 25 to 54 years old, had young children in the home, earned an average household income of U.S. $60,000, and owned average-priced homes that were located throughout the U.S. Beyond these statistics, the team had no insight into the segment.

Developing new ideas based only on this profile was extremely limiting. Wanting deeper insight into the target audience, they commissioned an ethnographic research study in which consumers who fit the target audience profile were recruited to participate in interviews. Researchers and the design team then visited the respondents in their homes to ask questions and observe how they really live.

Respondents didn’t know in advance that the team would be seeing their kitchens and bathrooms, so the rooms were not cleaned and “ready” for guests. The team was able to observe the rooms and respondents in their natural state, including open cereal boxes on the countertops, dirty dishes in the sink, towels strewn about the bathroom floors, make-up sitting on the counters, and the toilet seat in the “up” position. In other words, the basic American “lived-in” home, which many people might be embarrassed about and never share in a focus group setting.

After days of research with homeowners throughout the U.S., several areas of opportunity emerged for new bathroom products. For example, the design team learned the target audience had tiny bathrooms, not the huge master baths featured in model homes or magazine pages. Because they had limited space, they had major storage and cleaning issues. In addition, other interesting behavioral habits emerged. For example, some women sat in the bathroom sink or on the counter when putting on make-up, so that they could see what they were doing and be closer to the mirror.

As a result of this research, the product development team was able to generate an abundance of concepts to meet these needs—from new storage products, to products that were easier to clean, to products that made it easier for women to apply cosmetics.

Of course, traditional research methods such as focus groups still have an important place at the market research table. However, these techniques will not always provide the insights that are needed to build new products. Why? Because people either do not know or cannot articulate what they want. They don’t know that sitting in the sink is a quirky thing to do because that’s the way they’ve always behaved. They would never think to mention it in a survey or talk about it in front of unfamiliar people during a focus group. The only way to uncover these consumer insights is to learn how people really live, and to take new product development research to the place where products will actually be used.

Stephanie Husk is the president and founder of Deep Blue Insight, a market research company that specializes in new product development and brand strategy research. She holds a B.A. in Statistics and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Florida.


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