When companies design new products they often look for inspiration from their target audience. This makes sense. Building products that will be used by the bulk of your consumer base is the obvious way to sell the most stuff.
But average users rarely inspire groundbreaking innovations.
Imagine for example the people who designed the first sidewalks. These marvels of urban infrastructure pulled us up out of the mud, and gave pedestrians a safe and separate path to traverse the community. But by failing to take into account extreme users – like those in wheelchairs or pushing baby buggies – the designers of sidewalks failed a huge segment of their user group.
To this day, many urban environments, including New York City, still lack consistent curb ramps, which turns common city streets into a frustrating obstacle course for people with disabilities. Had those original street designers been trained in the art of design thinking, they would have known to look beyond the average walker to improve on their design. It’s a simple example, but it underscores why we need to look further afield to spur creativity.
In my last blog, I talked about the first habit of highly creative people, which is to ask brilliant questions. Habit #2 is to look for inspiration in extreme users.
The idea behind this approach is not to build products that only appeal to these small segments of your customer base. Rather it is a way to become inspired and develop empathy so that you can stretch your project team’s thinking, and look for solutions through a different lens.
Finding the Extremes
When you consider the bell curve of a typical user group, extreme users sit at either end. To the left are the novice users. This group may know little to nothing about your product, are indifferent to it, or they go out of their way not engage with it.
To the right are heavy users. These are the fanatical, loyal, passionate customers, who use your product or service extensively, tout it to their friends, and find new ways to make it even more useful. Each group can offer unique insights about your products, and inspire a different way of thinking about current and future customers. And there are several continua upon which we might choose to plot our extreme users. For example: age, level of experience, level of ability, socioeconomic status.
Let’s use Starbucks as an example. A novice user could be someone who intentionally never goes into a Starbucks shop, even if there is one on their corner. Maybe they think it is too expensive, or they want to support local coffee houses; maybe they don’t like the taste, or maybe they just prefer other types of beverages. It would be easy to dismiss this group since they aren’t technically customers, but understanding why they don’t come to Starbucks helps the team feel empathy for their perspective, which can be the inspiration for new products, like Starbucks Via instant coffee, which let customers make quality coffee at home in their microwave.
On the other side could be a Starbucks fanatic. They come to the shop every day with hyper complex orders, and are never seen without one of those familiar cups in their hand; or they may even be baristas who know every coffee drink recipe by heart and are ardent ambassadors of the brand. These are the users who can inspire new ideas– like the Frappuccino, which was invented by a team of baristas in LA looking for a way to cool off and who saw an opportunity to make iced blended drinks.
This is a hypothetical example, but it demonstrates the value of looking beyond the average customer to find problems that have not yet been solved.
How to Work at the Extremes
Here is how to get the most out of these encounters.
Use data to identify extreme customers.
Marketing and sales data can provide companies with the insights they need to identify extreme users. Loyalty programs, and repeat buyers can provide lists of your fanatics – and those who never respond to generous offers, post bad reviews, or visit your site once but didn’t purchase anything can help you identify your novices.
Limit the group.
You don’t need to talk to a lot of extreme users to generate new insights. Research suggests that five users who represent an extreme category is enough to get a baseline sense of their views. (Note: you may want to talk to multiple types of extreme users – i.e. those who skip Starbucks for cost, vs those who don’t like the taste.) You can also avoid the far extremes – i.e. if you are studying TV viewer behavior, you don’t need to speak with Amish people.
Meet them where they live.
Meet users in their home or other familiar space and have semi-structured conversations that spur discussion. Putting people at ease will lead to more robust conversations and bigger insights.
Ask specific questions.
Customers don’t know what you want from them and they won’t lead you don’t a path of discovery without a little guidance. Asking specific questions will inspire new ideas while keeping them focused on the topic at hand.
Observe their behavior.
Watching consumers use your products can uncover unconscious behaviors and attitudes that can generate new ideas. For example, we often use the example of an ice cream scoop in which we ask consumers how they scoop ice cream. They all offer variations on “open the lid, scoop the ice cream, then put the scooper in the sink.” When prompted as to whether they might be leaving something out, they say “no”, and when specifically asked if they likck the scooper they usually embarrassingly admit that they do. Whether they don’t realize they do this or they don’t want to admit it, they would never say they lick the scooper, but it was clearly an important part of the experience, and it generated new product ideas for our partners at IDEO when they were working with the Swiss company Zyliss.
Meeting with extreme users doesn’t require a lot of time, and it can help you find new inspiration. They are a front of valuable insights, and should not be ignored.
Luke Brodie is an enthusiastic Master Facilitator with ExperiencePoint. He energizes groups of business leaders through spirited deliveries of award-winning ExperienceInnovation and ExperienceChange workshops for Fortune 500 companies. He also empowers training partners to scale their impact around the globe. Luke holds an MBA from the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and has worked internationally in a variety of professional roles including airline management and as a professional musician.