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The key to cracking the toughest phase of human-centred design

Technology & Data

The key to cracking the toughest phase of human-centred design


Nathan Baird considers the process of creating products using the principles of human-centred design. Is turning customer research into customer insights the key to innovation?

Human-centred design (HCD) is a customer-centric, creative and experimentation-driven approach to innovation that teams use to create, design and test new products, services, experiences and better ways of working.

Whilst the majority of HCD principles have been practiced in the consumer goods industry for decades, its widespread adoption in other industries has only occurred in recent years. This explains why although its use has become quite mainstream, the practice is still quite immature. This is most prevalent in some of the harder and more specialist stages of HCD, which require expert facilitation and training and years of practicing, honing and refining to master these skills.

Having run hundreds of innovation projects and spent tens of thousands of hours leading and training HCD, in my view the toughest and probably most important phase of the innovation journey is the insight generation stage.

It’s the most important because without a true customer need and insight identified, teams are just wasting their time inventing stuff nobody wants. They might be having a lot of fun, but they aren’t being very commercial about how they allocate their organisation’s resources. A study cited by Robert G. Cooper in his book ‘Winning at New Products’ identifies that the number one factor behind innovation failure is “a lack of thoroughness in identifying real needs in the marketplace” with teams often “making assumptions in order to justify the project”. 

It is possibly the hardest phase because you’ve got to take all that you’ve learned and know about the customer – what you’ve seen, heard, read and experienced from them in the discovery phase – and turn that into customer insights that inspire opportunity and unlock innovation. Observations and data alone don’t cut it here. Insight requires curiosity, synthesising, connecting and sense making to get to the underlying ‘why’ behind customer’s behaviours and needs.

So how can teams get better at generating true deep customer insights?

Start with empathy

Well first of all they need to ensure they are actually getting out of the office and conducting empathy research with real customers and non-customers. Jumping straight to insight generation, or worse still ideas, without customer research, is just a short-cut to disaster. Resulting in your insights and whole innovation program being based on misconceptions, assumptions and opinions.

Only once we’ve got a really good understanding of who our customers (and non-customers) are, what is important to them and what pains and delights them can we then move onto the insight generation, or distillation, phase.

Cracking the insight

My method for turning customer research into customer insight is through storytelling, synthesising, crafting and sense checking. 

Storytelling is about sharing and unpacking the findings from your customer research across the team. This is best done in a workshop setting using sticky notes and marker pens and banking out interesting observations and anecdotes onto butcher’s paper or a template called an Empathy Map. 

Next is synthesis where you and your team hone in on the really rich and interesting observations. It’s a very qualitative and gut-feel process, so there are no hard and fast rules, just tips and techniques to help make the magic happen. Try looking for needs (needs can be functional, emotional or social), desires, wants, workarounds, undesired outcomes, obstacles, risks, tensions, pains and simply things that stand out. Following this exercise, you’ll still have a fairly large pool of sticky notes, which will need to be prioritised further. I do this by creating a scale from ‘important’ (to the customer) at the top to ‘nice to have’ at the bottom and moving the short-list of sticky notes onto this, with those sticky notes at the top going into the next step. Through practice and experience, you’ll get better at identifying the most promising opportunities.

Now we craft these sticky notes into customer insight statements or narratives. This is a very iterative and creative process. The customer insight statements consist of three key elements:

  1. A rich and specific description of the customer and the situation or context.
  2. Articulation of the need or problem the customer is trying to satisfy or solve.
  3. Distillation of the insight, that synthesis of their needs and why these are so important to the customer or why they are so hard to solve.

For example, the customer insight statement for a new indulgent ice cream might be something like:

An indulgent foodie needs guaranteed satisfaction because if the delivered pleasure falls short of the expectation it doesn’t justify the guilt.

As Clayton Christensen says, in his book Competing Against Luck, ‘you’re trying to capture the story of the customers in their moments of struggle or desire for progress.’

Finally, we sense check our insight statements. You’ll know when you have a good insight, because it feels intuitively true and you can’t help but start to think of solutions for it. Good insight statements are interesting and inspire action.

Cracking compelling insights is half the battle of innovation and the number one driver of innovation success.

Nathan Baird is an author and the founder of customer-driven innovation and growth firm Methodry.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash.


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