We all talk about focusing on our customers. But the reality is that most organizations have very few opportunities to actually see how real people interact with their products or services in the context of ordinary, day-to-day contexts.

“I wish I knew how people consume my product,” the president of a bottled water company mused when we first met him to discuss his firm’s marketing plans. His firm bottles water for office coolers, and was looking to build share. But he wanted to know more about his end-users. Most people never ask the question.

We love to encounter that kind of inquisitiveness in our clients because it dovetails perfectly with our philosophy of informed design, which emphasizes the end user as the source of inspiration for innovation and improvement. Our design researchers collect insights from our clients’ customers, and observe how they engage with their products or services. Our teams identify problems and opportunities, incorporating the information organizations never see directly into their design recommendations.

With the bottled water client, we dispatched our design research teams to four office locations in Southern Ontario, where they spent some time watching how employees used our client’s product. They recorded metrics such as frequency of use, the types of cups people use, and demographic information. Lastly, they conducted a dozen face-to-face follow-up interviews, because experience tells us that people often volunteer terrific insights when you get them talking.

And sure enough, that’s how we arrived at the proverbial lightbulb moment. From the interviews, we discovered that many employees harboured health concerns about those water coolers: they’d watched some co-worker fit used 500 mL water bottles over the spouts, and a few even encountered residual lipstick traces. If an infection was going through the workplace, many avoided the cooler altogether.

The irony was apparent: a product marketed for its healthful properties – pure spring water – had acquired reputation as a source of infection. When we explained our finding to the company, they were fascinated by what we’d learned. And these insights opened up a space for brainstorming about improved product design and better marketing: how to build a hygienic spout; how to create a more sanitary setting; and how to convey those features to ultimate end users, not just the purchasing manager who places the monthly bottled water order.

Our approach, which we call informed design, is all about the security of knowing that your customers and end users will have a positive experience. When they do, they’ll tell others. And isn’t that the strongest marketing tool of all?


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