posted 6 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
Making sense of product design
By Mary Lee Kennedy
One of the most significant challenges for companies creating new products – or revising those already in the marketplace – is to understand the features, functions, content and language that will be most appealing to potential customers.
Traditional research methods ask target audiences to choose from a list of possible scenarios. ‘Sense-making’, however, provides a powerful way to identify the context that the target audience uses to situate their needs and lets them articulate what they need in their own words – no need for interpretation.
Putting yourself in the shoes of the customer takes on a whole new dimension. Essentially, sense-making is the way individuals (and groups) create meaning and make sense of their organisational life and the environments in which they operate.
In product design, sense-making is used to establish the collective intelligence of the target customers. Traditionally, product design takes into account the engineering perspective (what is capable), the business perspective (what is viable) and the design perspective (what is desirable). These perspectives are generally informed by market intelligence and end-user experience research (for example, usability, contextual inquiry, market testing). Sense-making adds the important input – collective intelligence.
Whereas traditional research may ask the target audience about their views on a given topic, observe user behaviour through ethnographic techniques, or ask them to complete tasks and comment on their opinions, sense-making is based on experience as described in narrative.
The narrative itself is grounded in actual events, as described through the perspective of the customer. The collective experience as told by the audience itself is defined in the context established by the target audience – not in the language of, or as interpreted by, an observer or expert. The narrative shared by individuals and then viewed as clusters reflects patterns. And since the context is set by the audience itself, the patterns are irrefutable. There is no right or wrong.
The context set by the target audience must then be reviewed in the context in which the organisation finds itself. The combination of collective customer experience and organisational objectives requires stakeholders to assess where significant gaps exist – not only in terms of their presence but, equally important, their absence.
A discussion must ensue as to whether the evidence from the narrative affirms, challenges, or leaves questions open about the value of the objectives that the product is meant to address. This requires stakeholders to discuss the evidence as established by the narrative patterns. Priorities must be set based on the evidence, but stakeholders are provided a context in which to see priority focus areas. In fact, priorities emerge, as if a veil were lifted.
Times change – and so do customer needs. A monitoring system can be put in place to capture narrative and look for changes in patterns over time. The changes, when reviewed in terms of the organisation’s priorities, help to show whether the product has the expected impact, and if not, to review the collective experience against organisational priorities.
Products can be surprisingly successful or not. As consumers become more sophisticated and comfortable with the very nature of change itself, sense-making in ambiguous environments will help organisations to adjust quickly by listening to the customer and ‘walking in their shoes’.
Mary Lee Kennedy is the founding partner of TKG Consulting.