I was explaining the value I've found in Twitter to a
skeptical friend not long ago. But when
she asked how often I tweeted, I did have to honestly answer "not
much". It made me think about why I
seem to have this love/hate relationship with this tool - and for me it is a
Of course, I do have a Twitter account - @elldir, but I
don't tweet much. When I do, it tends to
be in bursts that last a few weeks or months, and then I tend to take a long
break from it. Why? Because I would much
rather talk to real, live human beings. For me there really isn't an equivalent online
that can truly take the place of meeting people in person.
Also, the Twitter format, 140 characters, isn't really
conducive to working out complex ideas.
If I'm going to write, I typically want to convey something I'm thinking
about, explain ideas and ask others for feedback. My online writing is about my work. I really don't care what people are doing in
their personal lives unless they are my personal friends, and i really don't
care to broadcast my personal life, so Twitter doesn't really fit into my
personal life in any way.
However, I cannot deny the benefits Twitter has brought to my professional life. The greatest benefit to me is that it is an excellent way to find others like yourself. I've been very pleasantly surprised to find
so many like-minded individuals from all over the world who have given me
excellent feedback, criticism, encouragement, and support over the years. Yes, I get that from this blog, but many
people have only found this blog because of the way Twitter makes it easy to be
found. I also enjoy reading links that others post to interesting articles I
may not have found.
Some people have done very creative things with their
Twitter accounts. I still smile when I
think of Brent Spiner's (remember him as Data on Star Trek) suspense story he
wrote in 140 character chunks. Brilliant.
But I'm not Brent Spiner, not even close. For me, I have to sit down and interact with
Twitter at the expense of anything else I could be doing in that moment. Since I work on confidential
projects, I can't tweet about what I'm thinking most of the time if it's
directly work related. My writing is
about abstracted ideas and models I develop from aggregated work experiences.
Tweeting regularly about specific experiences would require that I sanitize my
thoughts to the point that I don't fine them particularly interesting or
And therein lies the rationale for why I both love and
hate Twitter. I love the ability to find
people I wouldn't have found. The new connections are very valuable to me. But I hate the fact that I have to actually
sit down and interact with it. I don't
like to divert my attention from what I'm doing at the present moment, so you'll
never catch me tweeting from a restaurant, a meeting, or even while I'm watching
TV. For that reason, I will miss things
that pass by on the Twitter stream. Once
a woman I know was in town, and the only way she let me know was via Twitter. I found the tweet a few days after she had
come and gone. So for me it will never
replace email or even a text message.
But I do look forward to finding even more great people
out there, so I'm going to try (again) to focus on tweeting for brief blocks of
time during the week. If you respond and
don't hear from me right away, now you'll know why.
Last week I gave a talk in a class called Organizing for Innovation and Design, taught by Siobhan O'Mahony at Boston University. At the start of the class, I asked the students if there were any topics they wanted to cover specifically. They had read my bio, and checked out this blog, and one of the students wanted to understand the "method to my madness" in terms of my diverse educational background. They also were interested in my thoughts about continuing directly to grad school vs working before continuing their education.
During the course of my talk and Q&A, I managed to cover most of my thoughts on the multidisciplinary background - we were calling it the "patchwork education." In short, I feel that it is important to understand how different disciplines need to work together, and I felt I needed to learn about several of them in order to make better connections between them. My fields of study were engineering, design, and business, and rather than jumping between them, I fuse them together every day. Don't get me wrong, subject matter expertise is important, but innovation is not very successful when attempted by groups that live in isolated silos. Innovation requires making connections between seemingly disconnected disciplines.
By the end of the talk, I realized that I hadn't covered all the questions, so I sent Prof. O'Mahony an email with my follow-up responses, which included these thoughts on the multidisciplinary education question.
I would always recommend working before pursuing graduate education. My undergraduate curriculum was very multidisciplinary. If I hadn’t worked before pursuing my graduate degrees, I would have been blissfully unaware that most companies do not work in such a multidisciplinary way at all. Learning to navigate the silos, and exploring ways to bring them together was important in my MBA independent study thesis, which I would have missed out on if I hadn’t worked! This is how an education that appears to be a patchwork, actually becomes a quest to more fully pursue your passion.
Also, in terms of learning to combine creative problem solving and critical thinking skills, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend taking a course or two in English Literature and/or Social Anthropology. My undergraduate minor was in English Literature, and in terms of learning how to discern what consumers mean from what they say, it was invaluable. In courses where you are expected to critically analyze the literature, you are learning to articulate the motivations of the characters beyond what is written, and to understand how the author is using language to create a mood or feeling. With Social Anthropology you are doing the same thing in terms of understanding cultures through their artifacts. The most important thing we can do through in-depth consumer interviewing is to develop an understanding that is deep enough that we can anticipate a consumer’s likely response to stimulus. (By stimulus I mean a new feature or product introduction, a competitor’s likely action, etc) You just don’t learn that in traditional Market Research – sorry!
I would love to hear from others who have pursued similar paths. One thing I know we will all have in common is that our experience in creating our own educational path serves us well as we connect seemingly disconnected silos in our careers!
We've changed the name and look of the blog to better integrate with my consulting practice. The new name for the practice is Synaptics Group, Inc., and the blog will now be called the Synaptics Blog. These changes should better reflect the focus of the work, which is on Market Relevant Innovation.
What's Market Relevant Innovation? Think of it this way. Apple didn't invent the MP3 player, nor did they invent e-commerce. But they did develop the most market relevant way to access media, through the development of the iPod, iTunes, and the business model that connects them.
This is just the first step in connecting the two sites. The design will probably go through another iteration or two in the next few months, and I'll continue to post the latest thinking on Market Relevant Innovation!
I have repeatedly heard the word insight as something to be observed, as in "We observed several insights on that consumer interview."
There are several entries in dictionary.com for the word insight. In different ways, they all describe insight as an understanding of the true motivational forces that drive actions, define underlying truths, shed light on, or help to solve a problem. Assuming that is true, insights cannot be observed directly; they need to be inferred or derived by thinking critically about the observations we make.
The word insight, as it is applied to consumer research, is increasingly misrepresented. Observing behaviors and describing them is a fairly straightforward exercise, and many people can easily do this. Deriving insights requires the ability to observe, infer why the observation occurred, formulate a theory, test the hypothesis against multiple data sources, and construct an argument that will prove that the conclusion is valid. A smaller subset of people who possess a specific aptitude and attitude are best suited to do this.
Almost everyone, however, has the ability to understand the difference between an observation and an insight. Mistaking them is understandable for most, but if you use consumer insights to inform your work, please make sure you know the difference.
I talk a lot about learning from your market and applying that insight to grow your business. However, yesterday I realized that it's just as important to be aware of what you are teaching your market.
In a recent post on Jeff Jarvis' blog, he referenced a reader who talked about the ways the news industry needs to evolve its thinking to survive in the new economy. The new thinking is comprised of "Google'esque" ideas that focus on the value of journalism as a service rather than the paper as a product. I left a comment that I think is worth exploring more thoroughly.
While I think the ideas presented are good, they do not address what I feel is a more fundamental issue in the news industry. They have taught the market that the newspaper has value, and the content should be free. While I'm sure they didn't do it on purpose, they lost sight of why people bought newspapers in the first place. When they made the move to the web, they missed the opportunity to capture this value in a new way. Instead they gave it away, and going forward it will be difficult to capture value for what consumers now expect to be free.
I do believe there is great value in good journalism. Before the industry can pursue radically different business models to capture this value, they must first do whatever is necessary to decouple the journalism industry from the newspaper industry in the hearts and minds of consumers. The market will never value journalism if the industry cannot demonstrate this value clearly, consistently, and separately from newspapers.
Are you aware of what your company's behavior is teaching your market?
The other day I was having a chat with some colleagues about authenticity. Current wisdom suggests that brands and companies that are perceived to be less than authentic are doomed to fail. However, we know that brands, companies, and even people will behave differently in different situations. We even expect that they should. To lack the flexibility to do so would be socially disrespectful. So what is authenticity, and how to we ensure that others will perceive our work as authentic?
"To thine own self be true." That's the standard answer. If you are true to yourself, then you (meaning your brand, service, company, etc) will be perceived as authentic. However, I think that's only part of the answer. People can't judge how true you are to yourself. They judge how true you are to them, based on what they perceive. If you know what cues your market will respond to, then you can manage their perception consistently. This requires the ability to suspend what it means to be true to yourself, in order to fully immerse yourself in what it means to be true to someone else.
A few years ago, I was mentoring a person just starting out in his career. I imparted the standard guidance as he was doing his first solo project, and I asked him to periodically let me know what he thought was "cool", and why. He did well on his project, and I learned a lot about how his social group thought about the world. One day, we were talking about why he shunned big, corporate brands, and he used me as an example. "The coolest thing about you Ellen, is that you know how uncool you really are. Some big brands get that right, but most don't."
Hmmm...who said authenticity was a good thing?
People often ask me how they can improve their consumer interviewing skills. The thought being that if they can perfect the art of the one-on-one interview that they will have the key to understanding their markets.
I applaud the intention, and people who try to stick to a script rather than have a conversation with a consumer can surely improve their skills. But it's important to remember that one-on-one interviews are only one tool in your toolbox. Full understanding of what will drive consumer behavior in a given market requires a combination of qualitative and quantitative, primary and secondary, and generative and evaluative research tools.
How do you know which ones to use? The answer to that question requires a clear understanding of the business decisions that need to be made. Research should never be expected to give you an answer. It is a tool to give you information that will help you to derive the right answer. And the best way to ensure that you've arrived at the right answer is to collect information that will expose all sides of the issue you are dealing with, covering the proverbial blind spots.
Which leads me to the blind men and the elephant metaphor. In the story, six blind men are asked to describe an elephant, yet each only touches one part of the elephant. The man who touches the tusk thinks the elephant is like a spear, the man who touches the side things the elephant is like a wall, and so on. They end up arguing that the elephant is most like whichever part they had experienced, without realizing that the elephant is made up of all of the elements, and is not at all like any single one.
My advice is that the best way to improve consumer understanding skills is to figure out which perspectives and information will be necessary to paint the whole elephant. This can only be done by reconciling the results of all the tools used, rather than relying on any one to deliver the answer. Which then means that the best skill to hone is critical thinking.
There's a multimedia presentation in the online Harvard Business Review about how to get a better understanding of what customers may truly want.
I think this research method is a small step in the right direction. It shows how most quantitative evaluations that ask consumer to rate the importance of different features can lead to average ratings of each feature against the others. The new method they propose forces trade-offs of one feature over others in a variety of groupings. This results in a better understanding of what the consumer truly would prefer.
While this method is an improvement, I can't help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the process of having consumers choose discrete features from a list that was created based on aggregated focus group input. What's uncomfortable is that a consumer's ultimate opinion is the result of how they perceive experiences holistically. In the presentation the example was from a restaurant chain. The features were things like "food served hot and on time", or "updated decor". What this does is force consumers to decide which single attributes are most responsible for creating the experience they would like to have.
Asking consumers to do this is unfair. They are not restaurant space designers, and they are not chefs. It takes a lot of work to understand what experience the consumer would like to have, and then even more work to figure out how to combine the design and food elements to holistically deliver this experience. It also leaves designers and chefs with ambiguous instructions for how to proceed. Should the chefs deliver hot hamburgers quickly while the designers put white linen on the tables? Yes, this is an extreme, but we've all seen it happen.
Next time you're evaluating features in your next product, think about what you're really asking consumers to do. Are you evaluating products holistically, or are you shirking your responsibility and asking consumers to translate features to experiences for you?
Mike Arauz posted an interesting metaphor connecting brands to desire paths. Here's how he describes it:
This is a desire path (lots more here). Desire paths are the walking paths that get traced across the ground when groups of people, over time, leave the sidewalk and find their own more convenient routes from one place to another... We have many places to go and experiences to choose from; and our decisions are guided by our personal interests and the groups of people we want to join.
What I love about this metaphor is that it brings home the point that consumers will always find the most direct route to satisfy their motivations. Yet, if you ask them for directions, they will probably not describe the desire path. Why? Because desire paths are personal. People don't assume that you would desire the same path, so they will most likely talk about the "accepted" path.
You can only learn about the desire path by connecting with the consumer. Successful products, brands, and services convey that they follow the same desire path. How do they do that? This is the fundamental skill that separates good consumer insight from superficial consumer insight. It also separates good design and development execution from rote design and development execution.
How well do you understand your consumer's desire path? How well is this knowledge translated into other areas of your business? If you're not doing both of these things well you will be wondering why, after you've done everything "right", your consumers are no longer walking by your side. They have left you to follow a path you couldn't see.
Several weeks ago, my friend and excellent Salon participant Sean was inspired by Saul Kaplan's article about The Passion Economy. Sean decided to put forth a challenge to several of us to write a short article on what the idea of the passion economy meant, and its potential as an opportunity or fad. All of the articles were written independently, and we did not see the other contributors or the whole document until it was finished. Feel free to download and share the finished e-Book, and join the conversation!