Using empathy to drive process
By Misha Cornes
I don’t know a lot about makeup. When Organic started the pitch process
for a major pitch for a cosmetics company, I thought Bobbi Brown was
married to Whitney and that MAC was a line of Apple products. How could
we get smart about women’s cosmetics? The answer was to immerse the
team in the lives of women who use the product.
We canvassed industry experts, talked to salespeople in department
stores, filled a war room with shots from beauty magazines, and ran
intercept interviews at makeup counters. But for me, the ‘a-ha’ moment
came from talking directly to a customer in her natural environment. I
was out at the home of a retired school teacher, getting a tour of her
apartment and asking almost as an aside about the brands she cared
about. She was on a budget, and she talked with pride about various
bargains in her kitchen and living room. When we got to the bathroom,
her sink was filled with Clinique and Prescriptives products- all
bought at full price from a department store. “These are essentials,”
she said. “I would never skimp on any of this.” I understood in an
instant why cosmetics are an $8 billion-a-year business.
It’s moments like this that help explain why Organic, an
interactive agency, has made empathetic customer research an integral
part of our process. We use ethnography and personas to help our
clients uncover hidden insights that lead to groundbreaking ideas.
How can you bring more empathy into your own work? It doesn’t
necessarily require a team of experts or weeks of preparation. Here are
a few of the different techniques that we use to gather insights and
aid our understanding of what matters to customers:
Why not start with the people who (hopefully) know their customers’
best- your clients. But don’t limit yourself to your immediate
contacts. Reach out to anyone in the organization for interacts
directly with customers. Call centers are a particularly rich trove of
people who know what’s on customers’ minds.
In addition to professional resources, including this publication,
the Internet has created an explosion of user-generated content.
There’s a nice synergy between our desire to better understand consumer
behavior and motivations and the explosion of sites that allow regular
people to catalog their lives online. I love combing through Flickr
photo pools and sites like Grocery Lists or Squirl, a social catalogue.
Clients are usually most comfortable and familiar with this kind of
traditional market research. We usually offer closed-end surveys to
random samples of site visitors, and more directed questions to panels.
Online surveys are less expensive than phone surveys, and are
particularly useful for web-only brands.
This is a broad category that includes conversational discussions
with customers, in-depth interviews, intercept surveys, and focus
groups. These are typical methods used in advertising to find the voice
of the customer. Customers can say what they want to if they are asked
to make choices within a familiar product category, for example, how
seat leather should smell. You run into limitations when you ask
customers about the unknown. Nobody ever asked for an iPod in a focus
Within the world of qualitative research, there are several interesting
sub-categories that focus particularly on developing an empathetic
understanding of customers.
1. Observational Research
We observe customers in their natural environment, at home or at
work rather than in a formal research setting. It’s time-consuming to
collect this data, which makes it important to pick the right subjects.
We also set aside time for analysis. Professional ethnographic research
firms do highly structured, multi-week and sometimes global engagements
– I call our basic observations Napkin Ethnography.
2. Experiential Research
Why not become a customer yourself? When we first signed on Geek
Squad as a client, two members of the strategy team scheduled in-house
service calls to see what it was like to be a Geek Squad customer. We
also booked a rival company to compare the experience.
3. Participatory Research
For the bravest of clients, we involve users themselves in
designing the ideal experience themselves. This can range from card
sorting exercises to choose understandable taxonomy to suggestions
about site functionality. Beware feature creep! Customers don’t expect
to have to make tradeoffs (remember Homer Simpson’s dream car?).
Once you have all this research, what should you do with it? At
Organic, we distill our research into personas, archetypal
representations of actual users and their needs. Personas include basic
demographic information, psychographic profiles, and insights about
observed behavior. Great personas should invoke empathy. If your
persona doesn’t generate affection, empathy or opinion from your team,
in all likelihood it’s too generic.
We tend to customize our research approach based on how much a
client feels they already know about their customers. But we will not
skimp on persona development. The persona itself can take many forms,
from a single sheet of paper to a video biography to a set of physical
artifacts. I’ll talk in more depth about the way personas are expressed
in another column.
Overall, I find that our focus on empathetic research is moving us
away from the techniques of traditional marketing (typically focus
groups and other consumer panels) and closer to the realm of
user-centered design, particularly disciplines like product design and
environmental design. As advertisers, I would love to see us work more
closely more freely from design community. Ultimately we share a common
focus—the design of meaningful customer experiences.