August 8, 2013
Many innovation project leaders rely on a design brief for the creative team prior to concept exploration. It might include an overview of the problem to be solved, positioning language, a research recap and design constraints. But it falls short of providing true creative focus because it tends to be generic and without clear design direction. That’s because key market insights can be misinterpreted…or fall through the cracks entirely. And that can lead to inefficiency driven by off-strategy creative output, and a middling solution. Here are six tips that will transform that brief into a crisp Design Strategy to deliver the optimal design solution as well as many other positive project outcomes.
- Think of a Design Strategy as a natural bridge that translates consumer insight and other project parameters into actionable, on-strategy direction for the design team. It’s a way to focus creative energy on what really matters to consumers, the brand and the organization. It defines what the design team needs to solve for in both functional and perceptual terms. It gives the team something to really sink their teeth into…without stifling creativity.
- Pinpoint what functional and perceptual attributes consumers value most. Consider the gaps between your product and competing products, as well as gaps between all products and consumer expectations. Target those attributes that are both highly valued and poorly delivered. This goes a long way to crystallizing problems and opportunities in a way no one can ignore.
- Use the chosen attribute gaps to develop “Innovation Platforms” that provide concept development guidance and inspiration by describing the “what” of a new offering rather than the “how”. A solid platform describes a functional or perceptual utility without specifying how it is delivered. This gives the creative team the latitude they need to invent a range of potential solutions. And it ensures that they go a mile deep against what you’re solving for and consumers care about—rather than a mile wide on stuff that’s off strategy.
- Be sure to develop meaningful criteria for execution and concept evaluation: Agree on what a “good idea” is and has to do for the brand, the marketplace and the organization. I fear that not all ideas are good ones, and this exercise gives you the freedom to winnow down objectively without sapping initiative (or hurting feelings!).
- Incorporate capabilities and constraints in an even-handed way. It’s not just about what you can’t do in production. It’s also about what you can do. In production. In marketing. In distribution. Let everyone weigh in (and buy in), and push on the cross functional strengths that make ideas possible. Not just the limits that shut them down.
- When presenting your strategy, shy away from endless bullets with detailed, murky language. Words are open to misinterpretation…and don’t hold attention. Communicate with vivid graphical tools that the team can readily understand and get excited about. The best way to spur conversation and build consensus is to keep everyone awake and talking with crisp visuals that tell a coherent story.
So abandon the blah (blah, blah) design brief in favor of a coherent, focused design strategy. It’s the best way to build consensus, focus creative energy and ultimately land on the strongest design solution. Feel free to get in touch to find out more.
June 13, 2013
A message from Verizon today went something like this: We apologize for the occasional outages on your Verizon land line, and would like to take this opportunity to upgrade you to our more reliable digital phone service. Let’s see if I got this right: The best reason you can come up with for selling me on your new service is that your existing one stinks? That’s the “reason to believe”? The big differentiator? The compelling brand value? Your BEST promise?!
The truth is that I’ve never experienced an outage on my Verizon land line. And I think they know that. I can picture a bevy of brand strategists around a table brainstorming about how to up-sell land line customers before they go elsewhere. After an hour playing with pipe cleaners and Play-Doh, one says: “I got it! Let’s demean our brand, our existing service suite and our customer as a way to motivate the behavior we want!”
The most amazing thing about this strategy is that it ever found its way off a Post-It note.
April 24, 2013
Very often, product and package development teams use concept boards to represent the ideas they would like to test with consumers. Typically, sketches or renderings illustrate a range of configurations with embedded features or imagery. Often, utility overlaps. And it’s difficult for consumers to understand the concept intent. Or react with credibility due to the interaction effect. So the moderator spends a lot of time describing the key elements of each concept and how they are different. That mucks things up. There’s a better way, and it starts with what I call the Four “I”s of concept screening. They are “Improvise”, “Improve”, “Iterate” and “Integrate”.
IMPROVISE: Think about concept stimuli in a new way. A stack of concept boards can’t focus consumers on what really matters–to them or you. Basically, concept boards ask consumers to pick one favorite out of a finite set. Best of the worst? More importantly: What are the most desirable attributes? How well do the stimuli represent and deliver on them? So “improvise” a stimulus set that uses a combination of sketches, found objects and Consumer Promise statements in a coherent way. Consumer Promises articulate a range of potential problems and solutions, with positioning overlays. Which one resonates best? Found objects can represent working utility without prototyping. And preliminary sketches can offer unique attribute executions that deliver on the desired utility and promise. It sounds messy. But it’s really very structured. But best of all, it gives the consumer a number of vantage points to consider when evaluating your best ideas. That adds focus, reduces confusion and provides deeper feedback.
IMPROVE: A good stimulus set motivates consumers to help you further explore and refine. Found objects and preliminary sketches do this well, because they aren’t all buttoned up like renderings and prototypes. They say to consumers “we haven’t figured it out yet, and we’d like you to help us”. So they identify a critical role for consumers and invite them to get involved. And they avoid the “best of the worst” syndrome. As you reveal the Consumer Promises and the found objects and sketched work that best delivers on them, have a designer on hand to capture the conversation in fresh sketches. Which ideas support the best Promise? Which undermine it? Why? How could the ideas do a better job? Give consumers ownership by not presenting “answers”. Consider your stimuli a bunch of open questions. Then watch what happens.
ITERATE: This one is simple. Just keep doing it. Over and over. Capture the conversation in fresh sketches. Review them with consumers. Ask them which best serves the core Promise. What changes could make it and lesser Promises stronger? And remember, showing consumers ideas in multiple forms and occasions throughout the session helps confirm and lend consistency to what you’re hearing. At the end, a tagging exercise like the one pictured above can be useful if done properly. But make sure everyone has the chance to tell their story about why. And make sure you can build consensus around the strongest Promise and the utility/imagery that best delivers it. Iteration sounds boring. But it’s not. It’s the best way to get closer to an optimized solution.
INTEGRATE: Push ideas together. But do it with discipline and caution. Capture the best attributes and executions across the various stimulus forms. Then combine them in orderly, coherent ways. Consumers will readily say “I’d combine this one with that one.” Or “let’s take the shape of that one and the closure of this one”. That’s not good enough. Consumers are quick to take your concepts literally and often want it all. You need to carefully tease out what features, aesthetics and imagery are working well for them, and why. Test them for why a given attribute should be included and whether it’s really high priority. Then go off and redefine the concepts–perhaps overnight to show the next day. Just because consumers take your ideas literally doesn’t mean you should interpret their feedback as such. In fact, “Interpret” could be another “I”. But I think you get the idea. It’s less about “I want that”, and more about “I want to DO that”.
So, the next time you’re fixing to develop and test some concepts, remember the Four “I”s. They should keep you from falling back on a stack of concept boards and the standard issue “vote and validate” practice.
April 16, 2013
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A guy walks into a major big-box housewares store to find a microwave. His last one survived three years before belching black smoke in response to the challenge of heating one more slice of pizza. He buckles and sweats under the weight of his chosen unit as he waits on a DMV-inspired check-out line. In turn, he places it gingerly on the counter, heeding all “this end up” indications, for scanning and payment. The cashier proceeds to flip-flop it over and over, side to side, looking for the bar code. She then drops it on end into a bag on the floor. And then, just to make sure any fixed parts are no longer, she topples it in the general direction of the bewildered customer, as if to say “there you go–now get going”. He says, not to himself: “You know, if it’s broken it’s coming right back”. To which she replies in earnest, as if offering service above and beyond: “Don’t worry–we have a no-hassle return policy”. For whom?
March 5, 2013
Many CPG marketers I talk to seem convinced that the same qualitative methods they use for ongoing brand work are also right for testing product and package concept development. But I tell them that the tasks are very different, and demand different approaches. That’s because ideating, screening and evaluating fresh concepts requires investigation of functional, perceptual and emotional attributes. So it expects consumers to use abstract thinking: To consider potential occasions, usage dynamics, aesthetics and brand imagery. That’s tough to do in a standard-issue focus group.
So here are some tips for making the most of research for concept development:
1) Expand your notion of what a “concept” is. Showing 2D sketches is the default activity. But these can be redundant, confusing and downright misleading. How about starting with alternative Consumer Promise statements that pose the problem, solution and features in different ways for consumer feedback. Then, show discrete 2D or 3D concepts that deliver on those promises in unique ways. See which ones best support the preferred promise. And which ones undermine it. Then, work with consumers real-time to advance the best ideas.
2) When bringing consumers together in groups, make sure you allow them to do what they do best. And avoid what they don’t. Work as a small team—perhaps no more than 3 or 4. No one can hide under the table, and no one can monopolize the conversation. Then, have them react to preliminary stimuli in a way that focuses them on specific attributes individually, and the best way to deliver that utility. That’s how you sidestep Groupthink.
3) Make sure the stimuli you show are disparate enough to prevent confusion and prompt some lively conversation. You may only be interested in minor differences in closures or shape, but show some wider reaching concepts for context and to indicate where on a spectrum the most preferred solutions lie. This is probably the flaw I see most frequently (and seek to disarm) in concept testing.
4) Re-think expensive rendering and model building activities. Look for ways to show “concepts” that get to the heart of what you’d like to test in each. Often, “found objects” (products currently for sale across all kinds of categories) can stand in for traditional concept boards and models to demonstrate specific feature alternatives and benefits. And, this has the added upside of getting consumers to focus on unique attributes rather than parse multi-functional, flat depictions.
5) Let consumers play with your stuff. Mock up usage environments to mimic occasions. Could be the car, the kitchen, the lunch box, the home office or the briefcase. While you may think this is “fake”, I’d argue that with latitude, consumers can approximate how they use products to generate much better insight into functionality. And this type of theater gives you permission to show them early stage breadboards and found objects without losing credibility.
6) Ethnography can be a great way to identify unrecognized needs and drive preliminary concepts. But make sure you’re not conducting “mock” ethnography in the real world. I don’t know how many times a recruiter has asked me which store I’d like to do the shopping occasion in, what time I’d like to visit consumers in their homes, and what would I like the consumer to have on hand to demonstrate an activity. WRONG.
7) Make sure the output of your research is designed to build team consensus and drive the decisions that must be made at each stage of development. Vivid analytical tools can help, as can specific criteria and integration exercises. This is not just about identifying the strongest idea, but about communicating results in ways that every team member understands them and can see them brought to life in both physical and strategic ways.
8) Work with consumers real-time to refine your preliminary concepts in new sketches. Combine some of the pointers above with ideation and integration exercises that pull together their stated preferences across functional and perceptual dimensions. Then, you can walk away from the research with a pile of documented, optimized concepts that represent group consensus.
9) Seek to get “qual / quant” feedback, so preferences are clear and you can better understand not just the Why and the What, but the degree of Why and What. What are the most important attributes? Which concept best embodies them? The right tools can capture data to show you what’s the head-and-shoulders directional winner. Reviewing the focus group tapes can’t.
10) Find a qualitative research resource that understands the product and package development process, and how research fits. Researchers can be great with consumers, but if they ask the wrong questions and use the wrong methods, valuable (and valid) information will be lost. A familiarity with the key decisions to be made at each stage of development, and information required to make them is critical to structuring research that gets a project one step closer to success.
Bonus Tip: When developing your recruiting criteria, don’t focus just on current users and target prospects. Think about two kinds of rejecters, too: Those that have used your product and stopped; and those who are aware of it and considered it but decided in favor of a substitute.
So, next time you’re planning design research, don’t automatically book the moderator, sketch some stim and recruit some bodies. Think about how the task at hand is different from day-to-day market research. Think about what you’re expecting from consumers. And design the research to ensure you get it.
January 7, 2013
Occasionally, clients will ask me to conduct research on an array of package concepts that are well down the path in cost and feasibility assessment. They want consumers to select from a tight range of actionable concepts, even if those concepts vary in extremely subtle ways. There’s nothing wrong with showing consumers actionable designs. However, when they are hardly distinct, the research could backfire big time. Here’s why:
- A lack of distinction across the stimulus array will make it hard for consumers to find and articulate the perceptual and functional differences that impact them.
- Minute distinctions may mask an underlying opportunity to exceed consumer expectations. Often you may hear them say “It doesn’t really matter”. Here, there’s no way you’re going to be surprised.
- A lot of time and money may have been spent on prototypes that suggest derivatives of a final design rather than preliminary concepts for exploration. Concepts should always look and feel “early-stage” so that consumers will believe their input counts. Unless, of course, you are conducting usability testing.
- As suggested by the rather silly caption above, it’s very difficult to get at the emotional and lifestyle underpinnings of choice when everything looks generic. Marked distinctions are much more likely to elicit comments about “fit”.
So even if you have little inclination to move into production with every concept you show, show a disparate range. You’ll learn much more about what works for the consumer–perceptually, functionally and emotionally. And you can use that learning to refine the concepts you can execute. There are many ways to do this to avoid the prototype trap: Found objects; Consumer Promise statements and attribute-driven concept boards can work together to build fresh insight that will provide focused direction for concept refinement.
In sum, showing just what you can (or want to) make in a derivative range ignores the role of the consumer in your inquiry. But give them distinctive options to chew on and they will reward you with new learning, fresh opportunity and an actionable solution. And that works for everyone.
December 3, 2012
If your Sunday newspaper looked anything like mine a few weeks ago, it was twice it’s usual size–stuffed with retail brochures touting “Black Friday” savings. But not just post holiday savings. “BLACK FRIDAY” savings. Which didn’t start or end on Friday.
We all know where this term came from. It’s the day most retailers begin to gather a whoppingly large percentage of their profits for the year. But when did it become a marketing message? Do consumers understand the term “Black Friday”? Should they? Regardless, retailers seem to think consumers know Black Friday means ridiculously cheap stuff. On Friday. Or Thursday through Sunday, leading into Cyber Monday.
What’s with all the corporate speak that’s passing as marketing copy? Can’t we do better than to expect consumers to process the language we use to gauge our own performance? The cynic in me believes that retailers have simply folded shamelessly in their efforts to convince consumers their products and brands have value. They’ve given up.
And by the way, what’s with use of the exclamation “Door Buster Savings”, as in “Get Black Friday Deals with Door Buster Savings!!!” Don’t people get trampled every year in true door-buster fashion in their quest for the obsolete $19 DVD player? New rule: Why don’t we stop coining phrases as marketing messages that can help incite riots outside retail establishments.
As the year draws to a close, let’s look back at the marketing communications we use to motivate consumers. At the very least, we should ask if it’s relevant to them. Do they understand it? Is it misleading? Respectful of their intelligence? And, are we undermining our own brand-building efforts as the result?
Rant over. Have a fabulously warm, relaxing and enjoyable holiday season. And don’t worry–Black Friday will come around again in no time.
October 2, 2012
A potential client recently asked me which product category I thought represented the more difficult innovation challenge: Food or Household products. I think the answer depends on how we define the “challenge”. Do we mean which allows us to more easily and efficiently manage the innovation process? Or the likelihood that such a process would spawn successful new products? After giving this distinction some thought (see the chart here), I ended up believing that innovating in food categories is the more difficult process challenge, and it’s less likely to bring success in the marketplace. Here’s why:
It seems to me that innovating against usage occasions and product utility are the dimensions that best define the innovation challenge for a category. They span the axes in this chart. Given the location of “Food Products”, an example may be a new OTG snack food package (existing utility for an existing occasion). At first glance, modifying existing utility for an existing occasion may seem relatively “close-in”. However, both the process and the likelihood of success is fraught with minefields, such as:
- Understanding and catering to the needs of multiple decision-makers, such as kids and other family members.
- Battling a wide range of potential substitutes such that the competitive frame is often murky.
- A purchase process motivated by “softer” emotional underpinnings such as brand allegiance, perceptual impact and feelings toward family, and less by in-use functionality.
Household product innovation, however, sits much closer to new occasions and creating new utility. Think of a new cleaning or food storage product designed for an unrecognized need. Sounds really difficult, right? While identifying and innovating for new occasions and new utility would seem more challenging, it is actually a more straightforward undertaking.
- Consumer insights focus on functional rather than emotional gaps. Even identifying new occasions is often observation driven. And opportunity for new functionality is apparent in workarounds and friction points consumers experience with existing products.
- Direct category competitors are clear. They sit right right on the shelf next to other related category products. And their functional pros and cons are easy to dissect.
- A single buyer is most likely making the purchase decision, likely based on his or her needs alone. Less emotional angst and fewer opinions to be mindful of.
Household product categories demand “new to the world” innovation, but the path to getting there is more clearly defined. The new occasion is hard to identify, but easy to validate. The required functionality is more apparent and testable. So one would expect that the odds of success may be higher, if only because the performance criteria are narrower and the measures cleaner. But…and this is a big one: Success in Household categories depends more critically on design execution. If it doesn’t work right, nailing the need doesn’t matter. In the Food business, there may often be more latitude in design, largely because there are more variables to get right, and all those moving parts help diversify the risk of any one.
What’s the point? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s that each category group demands different innovation skills and tools. Food innovation may depend more on empathy for deeply emotional decision-making, and the ability to define the market in less traditional ways. Household product innovation may require more unbridled creativity to see the new usage opportunity and invent the implement that delivers on it effectively. Does that make one harder than the other? I’m still not sure. But it’s been fun to think about.
August 27, 2012
I’m convinced that unrecognized market insights are the strongest drivers of successful innovation. Without fresh and valid insight, the rest is just misguided process—a hammer looking for a nail, if you will. But in my experience, there are two kinds of market insight, each with merit:
- “Shallow” insights focus on functional or perceptual gaps. Identifying these may be critical to ensuring parity performance or leapfrogging competition if that’s the game you’re playing. I’d call these “observations” rather than insights because they are just that: Out there for everyone to see. Easy to spot in research, but not often defensible. We may call them “friction points” or “workarounds”. But perhaps they are the right target when you’re looking to evolve, enhance or extend a product line.
- “Deep” insights are the transformative underpinnings of attitudes and behavior. They deliver competitive advantage because they are interpretive rather than obvious. They are true insights because they are derived from reading between the lines in what consumers say and do. From connecting the often emotional dots sitting beneath several observations. And from looking well beyond standard issue opportunities that limit your efforts to “fixes” and enhancements. Deep insights are what we want if we are to reinvent a category, create a new usage occasion or surface a truly unrecognized need.
OK, now that we’ve determined whether our innovation challenge demands Shallow Observations or Deep Insights, how can we ensure that they effectively drive concept development rather than sadly fall through the cracks of our well-intentioned, multi-staged process? Consider this five-step approach to building a bridge from superior insights to outstanding design:
1) Create a work output continuum that builds toward a focused design direction your creative team can sink their teeth into. For example, use insights to define a series of testable Consumer Promises. Support these Promises with simple, early stage concepts that help lend clarity to their intent and bring them to life for consumers.
2) Use this understanding to agree on what attributes consumers care most about in your category. Bucket those attributes into Emotional, Perceptual and Functional dimensions. Then, identify the gaps in consumer expectations.
3) Use the most compelling Consumer Promise(s) and the most desired features and attributes to drive a set of Innovation Platforms. Innovation Platforms provide concept development guidance and inspiration by describing the “what” of a new offering rather than the “how”.
4) Ask your creative team to use these Innovation Platforms to drive their exploration. That will ensure they go a mile deep against what you’re solving for and consumers care about—rather than a mile wide on stuff that’s off strategy.
5) Then, integrate the best executions across Platforms to build coherent solutions. Be sure to develop meaningful criteria for execution and concept evaluation: Agree on what a “good idea” is and has to do for the brand, the marketplace and the organization.
A Design Strategy that is grounded in proper insights—and then properly carries them forward—is the missing link in innovation success. It focuses creativity on delivering breakthrough Consumer Promises. It builds team consensus that tells a progressive story and informs excellent decisions. And best of all, it won’t let those game-changing insights (or observations) disappear into the innovation process abyss.
March 12, 2012
A few of my recent projects have involved moving consumers away from competing brands or substitutes toward a soon-to-be better product. They got me thinking about how to best induce consumers to change ingrained behavior and switch brands. The obvious answer is to build in more attractive functionality and/or aesthetics and win them over on product superiority grounds. Leapfrog competition, if you will. The assumption here is that when consumers spot the merits of the improved product in advertising or on shelf, they will shamelessly jilt the product they currently use for a relationship that promises more. They will match their needs with listed features, and make the decision that any rational consumer would: Switch!
But we know that more often than not, they don’t. Cognitive and behavioral inertia is a powerful, insidious force that will often defeat the most compelling feature proliferation in many categories. While age-old “feature creep” gives us more to say to consumers, inertia may be a huge barrier to switching in your category. Particularly if it is characterized by the following dynamics:
- Relationship Complexity: Sometimes, a product can be “installed” in the life of a user in ways that make it very difficult to rip out. A subscription billing system for wine or flowers might be a too-tangible example. More subtly, maybe an existing product benefits from a simple contextual advantage: That bottle of orange juice fits perfectly in my refrigerator door. And my refrigerator is organized just as I want it. In some fashion, the product is cleverly entrenched, and only severe dissatisfaction may dislodge it.
- Lost Investment: An existing financial commitment to an incumbent product will make consumers feel wasteful if they were to switch. Perhaps a fairly expensive hair care system would be a good example. Or multi-packs of anything. While the intention to try something new may be there, too much prior effort and money may be tied up in something else. And by the time they work through the inventory, you’re no longer front and center. So, rinse and repeat.
- Adjustment Risk: Sometimes, there’s the fear that a new product will take time to get used to. This may occur most often in household cleaning and personal care categories. As a consumer, I may be convinced that a new product offers the right feature set, but what if it doesn’t work right for me? After all, my wood floors are different from others. So is my skin and hair. Or, what if I can’t figure out how to use it properly? Too much potential for trial and error. Too much adjustment. Too much risk.
- It Ain’t Broke: Consumers have a hard time thinking that a new product would perform better than one they are presently satisfied with. If the current product works “perfectly”, how could another be better? What they don’t realize is that what they think is perfect is far from the utterly blissful experience they could be having with another. They can’t imagine what that would be like, so they remain loyal to the objectively adequate.
- Brand Master: Many consumers have preconceived notions about the brands that are right for them. Brand attributes align with their values. They trust that the brand and the product would not do them wrong. This one is hard to defend against since the relationship can span generations in a family and has strong emotional underpinnings. That’s why consumer goods manufacturers spend so much building their brands. And why dormant brands are bought. There probably isn’t a stronger force in preserving the status quo. Then again, my mom used Tide and I prefer the yellow bottle with an arm on it.
Brand issues aside, I spoke with a colleague recently who brought many of the above points home for me. He has been using the same two-bladed razor for 20 years. When I asked him why, he said: “The old handle has a great feel to it”. I asked him if he ever held one of the newer handles. “Why would I?” (It Ain’t Broke). “I have scoured the earth for all the remaining cartridges” (Lost Investment). And, “How could 5 blades be smoother than just 2?” After I tried to explain how, he replied: “Sounds complicated” (Adjustment Risk). There is no question that if he were to try the latest technology, he would berate himself for not making the move years ago. Why won’t he? The cognitive/behavioral trappings of Switching Inertia.
So, if you live in a category where feature proliferation has always dominated, but switching inertia is the real barrier to growth, maybe it’s time to rethink your approach to innovation. Or at least broaden it to include addressing the underlying causes of loyalty to competition. Spend some time understanding how switching inertia operates in your category. Why do consumers admit that your product is functionally superior, yet still neglect to try it? How do they define the relationship they have with their existing product? What role does the product play in their life that gives it a contextual advantage that redefines performance?
What are some examples of what you could do to overcome Switching Inertia? Well, it depends on the category. Maybe you could offset a consumers’ previous investment in time and money. Maybe you could align with the contextual benefits she expects in a broader relationship. Maybe you could ensure a fail-safe, easy-adjustment experience. At the very least, maybe you could work harder to make product advancements more intuitive and easier to understand. Once again—how could five blades scraping my face possibly give me a smoother shave than two?
Consider product performance beyond inherent features, including all relationship benefits and how they create switching risk for consumers. Feature Creep is sometimes due to the mindless pursuit of functional superiority. Though it’s often not mindful of why consumers can easily turn away from a “better” product.