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Real Innovation Takes Walking A Mile In Your End User's Shoes

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When most organizations set out to innovate, they often look at the problem from their own point of view. But by exploring the challenge through the eyes of the end user -- the people who actually use your product or service -- you can understand what really matters, where real value lies and what will make solutions stick.

One way to see the point of view of your end user is to sit down with them, face to face, and have a conversation about their experiences. You can enhance your conversation and gain even further insight into values, attitudes and behaviours by utilizing tools like describing images, sorting cards or drawing.

Juicier than raw data from consumer surveys, these interactions can help you develop a deep understanding of your users and offer a window into their hearts and minds.

User-centered design expert Jennie Winhall, program faculty for Lougheed Leadership's Leading by Design and ALT/Now programs, offers some points to keep in mind when you seek to explore a problem from the perspective of your end users:

Seek insights, not information.
Winhall explains that when conducting research, organizations often make the mistake of developing surveys designed to validate an existing hypothesis. By designing a survey with the intention of confirming a specific answer you have in mind, you limit the potential for discovering insights about your users.

To arrive at truly innovative solutions, you shouldn't know what the answer is when you begin; give yourself the permission to explore possibilities so that the right answer can reveal itself. In order to find new solutions, you must get to know new people and new scenarios. Instead of seeking affirmation of your hypothesis, listen for what might challenge your assumptions.

Remember that this type of research doesn't have to be with large sample. A small sample of 10 to 20 interactions is enough to develop valuable insight. Winhall says that innovation research doesn't have to be robust in the same way as market research. "Market surveys reveal truths, whereas innovation research reveals opportunities," says Winhall.

Explore different types of needs.
While it's obvious that needs vary from person to person, we often fail to recognize that any given individual has different types of needs within the self. If you are able to tap into each, these different levels of needs can reveal valuable insights. Needs can be explicit, implicit or latent.

Explicit needs are wants and desires that people can express, and these can usually be tested with a regular interview. Tacit needs are more elusive, and comprise of wants and motivations that people cannot or do not express. Tacit needs can be explored through observation, co-design, visual exercises such as drawing, sorting cards or responding to images, so that the users reveal their preferences.

Finally, latent needs are the deepest held needs, and can be understood as what people don't yet know they desire. Latent needs are best tested through prototyping. Winhall notes that undiscovered needs are great for inspiration. For example, a few decades ago, people failed to see the need for portable music in their lives. Although there was no explicit need for the Sony Walkman until it was invented, today portable music players are ubiquitous.

People don't always do what they say they do.
Through her many years of experience conducting user-centred research, Winhall has learned that you can't always believe what people say, even if they believe it themselves. Winhall describes interviewing a man a few years ago to gather insight for an innovation project on diabetes.

During the interview, the man, a diabetes patient, told Winhall, "I always eat healthily." However, when she asked the man to photograph his meals and share the images with her, Winhall discovered that he routinely ate large meals that would definitely not be considered nutritious. This wasn't a case of the man trying to be sneaky or deceive Winhall; he genuinely believed the meals he prepared were healthy.

This discovery lead to valuable insights for the diabetes project. The example above demonstrates the value of supplementing user interviews with different types of data: meeting the interviewee in their home so you can observe them in their natural setting, asking them to take photos or to track their behaviours.

Extreme users reveal the most interesting insights.
Although it is tempting to focus research on the typical user who generates the majority of sales, Winhall believes that the most interesting insights come from extreme users at either end of the spectrum. You can often gain breakthrough insights from those whose situations are at the extremes of a typical bell curve of distribution.

For instance, a bank conducting innovation research might focus on people who never visit the bank, or high frequency users who visit a branch multiple times a day, rather than studying the typical users who come in once every couple of weeks.

Consider Fitbit, wearable technology which tracks your physical activity. Originally designed for healthy people who wanted to log their fitness, Fitbit has been recognized by medical professionals as a valuable tool for people in recovery from heart attacks, revealing an entirely new user group. By exploring the extremes of user groups, new opportunities may be discovered.

Above all, build empathy.
Finally, the most crucial aspect of user-centred design is that it allows you to build empathy for your users. Winhall believes that good innovation work begins by looking through the eyes of your end users. This is more than listening to their needs, it often means delving in deep to gain an understanding of that person's experience.

Winhall describes designers who have worn suits to mimic the feeling of arthritis or the routine of monitoring insulin levels for diabetes patients. By simulating the sensations and practices associated with medical conditions, designers can better empathize with the patients, and situate their thinking to develop novel solutions that are truly centered around the people who will use the product or service.

In order to be truly innovative, you have to understand the people you are designing for and step into their shoes.

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