Product Insight: Customer Research and Design

An important element that should underpin any of the tasks men­tioned in the previous paragraph is customer/user research. some hired consultants expect that the firm will provide the research, whereas other consultants conduct the research themselves. The research itself can even be outsourced; there are firms that specialize in the type of research that is critical for product insights, like ethno­graphic tools developed by anthropologists. Ethnographic methods include observation, in-depth interviews, and other methods of qual­itative user research. These techniques are complementary to mar­keting tools and are especially effective in the early stages of product development and for maintaining a healthy dialogue with customers. Companies vary significantly on how well they integrate these con­sumer research techniques with the standard quantitative large sam­ple techniques traditionally used by marketing.

Consider Product Insight in Boston. At Insight, Elizabeth Lewis heads one of the largest customer/user/people-centered research groups in the United States. Most projects at Insight start with Lewis and one of her teams. Lewis is an ethnographic researcher. she has her degree in anthropology and started her career under the direction of Liz sanders, one the pioneers in the field of product ethnography, while working at Fitch in Columbus, Ohio. Fitch did some landmark work with companies such as Xerox and Texas Instruments. Both Lewis and Sanders left Fitch, Sanders starting her own firm, Sonic Rim, and Lewis moving to Boston to work at Product insight.

Product insight is one of the few companies that can routinely sell its product research as a core competency. Although insight is a complete product development firm, companies often just hire it to conduct research to find emerging opportunities. Lewis learned to apply her anthropology education to design better products and ser­vices. She went from studying subcultures in a nonapplied context to using her education to determine how to design better products and services. She also learned how to effectively hand off research insights to a product development team. One difficulty many firms have is making that conversion, understanding how to convert the product research findings into features and form. Their process is similar to iDEo, and insight realized that the research teams should have industrial designers and engineers as well as psychologists, soci­ologists, and anthropologists. Many industrial designers can conduct product research because they have backgrounds in human factors. But they also have excellent observation skills. Social scientists are trained to observe human nature and infrastructure and convert those findings into observed patterns and tendencies of behavior and preferences. Engineers bring an additional perspective to the research through task analysis, functional reasoning, and statistical analysis. Together, the group understands what the product develop­ment team needs to turn this research into product or service fea­tures and form. No one ever asks Lewis to look for cheap insights to lower the cost of their products. instead, the group is always looking for observations that will lead to innovative shifts in the way products function or look in a marketplace.

Lewis and her team at Product insight were approached by the Aearo Company to look for new insights into how people wear respirator masks. The company was looking for a way to use innovation rather than cost cutting to compete with its main rival, 3M. It seems that 3M not only owns the tape and Post-it markets, it also owns, the low-cost end of the respirator mask business. 3Ms abil­ity to control the price of material cost allows it to drive the cost so low that competitors cannot compete at a profit. Aearo was wonder­ing how to stay afloat. It did not just hire Insight to design a new mask; Aearo hired Insight because it also has the talented user research group so important for this task.

Lewis and her team observed mask users and had several insights. They studied people who wear their masks extensively throughout the day. It was not a big deal to find out that people hate to put their masks on in the morning and take them off at night. Most masks have thin headbands that tangle hair and put annoying pres­sure on the wearer’s scalp. The surprise came from watching these workers on breaks. Because of the awkwardness, no one wanted to take the mask off during every break. Instead, they slid the mask down onto their neck, moving the tension onto their throat. People can take 5 to 10 breaks a day. Most breaks are for smoking cigarettes, an irony not missed by the team at Insight. The opportunity was to make the mask easier to deal with on breaks, as well as to put on and take off. The solution was an award-winning mask with an ergonom­ic insight that allowed Aearo to charge more for its masks and get the sales. Product Insight developed an innovative release latch that allows the wearer to release the front of the mask, thereby relieving the tension. Because the wearer lifts the mask back onto the face by closing the latch, the attachment around the head does not have to be made of thin elastic material that pulls over the hair. A cup at the back of the head keeps the mask in the right orientation for closure and helps maintain a more comfortable position while worn. The mask costs more to make, but the profit margin for Aearo is far greater than anything it could have made while trying to compete with 3M by cost.

In the case of Aearo, Product Insight helped save a company and made the respirator mask industry more competitive by driving up the value of innovation. The most important outcome of this design project for the worker is that more people will wear their masks. Compliance with wearing masks was previously found to be a big problem. If a mask design is better and more comfortable, the com­pliance of employees, and the possible reduction in insurance rates, will more than pay for the higher cost of the mask. The employees’ improved working experience may also mean fewer sick days and reduced turnover, both major problems for industries that require respirator masks. The cost implications of these problems have far greater impact on the bottom line than a slight price increase per mask.