"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -- Marcel Proust
"Don't you feel more alive when you are traveling?" asks Lisa Alpine in a travel writing workshop a few weeks ago. But that feeling is often missing in familiar environments. We are not in a state of heightened awareness. That's because we're no longer perceiving but assuming -- we already think we know what we are seeing. "Everytime you get up in the morning pretend you have never been there."
It's easy to fall into the trap that you know your market particularly if you've worked in the space for a while. When I first moved to Salt Lake City from the flatlands of Florida, the mountains were imposing and in-your-face dramatically beautiful. After a couple of months I barely noticed them. When I would visit Silicon Valley, the energy was palpable. I can easily take it for granted now that I live here.
Part-eavesdropper, part-confidant, Priya Prakash gains insights into other's lives most market researchers would simply overlook. "When designing products or services that don’t yet exist we need to understand the customer, instead of having a technocrat decide from the top down." It's bottoms-up market research.
So I learned a new word for a naturally engaging activity I love to do, especially when I am travelling. Priya spoke about Project Miljul at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference 2004. Project Miljul was a research grant study on wireless service design for emerging markets.
"Deep hanging out" is based on the idea that the best way to absorb a culture is by being there and participating in daily activities. After a quick Google search I was surprised to find "deep hanging out" was an acceptable methodology for qualitative research used by the likes of BBC (Priya now works at BBC) and Intel, among others.
My engineering background belied my own assumptions about what "formal", "rigorous" research should look like. Although it may appear as if most companies just pick product strategies out of a hat, many larger corporations do spend a huge amount of effort on formal surveys and focus groups. I often feel like an imposter when I naturally want to use anecdotal observation of customer behavior even if there is a definite pattern emerging but not necessarily hard data to back it up.
But innovation is rarely that orderly. It's a messy affair. Especially when you are trying to come up with product categories that don't even exist yet. The real money is made well before there is ever a Gartner or Jupiter or Forrester Report on it. Those reports are intended for the end-users more than for the innovators.
Studies show that 75% of new products fail for lack of a market. After the session, Priya told me that focus groups, surveys, and statistics - the quantitative research - certainly have value after the qualitative research.
Priya video-recorded interviews and captured real glimpses into the lives of street vendors and small business owners in India by spending time with them, seeing through their eyes, and having a "beginner's mind" with no preconceptions about how they should use or not use mobile technology. This type of qualitative research is necessary for the brain-storming phase of product development she says -- when you are still exploring true market needs and before you are entirely sure what the product might be.
I have worked for quite a number of companies where the marketing department, the founder or sometimes, god forbid, the engineers muse about what they think the customer should want. Always avoiding talking to potential customers. And if they do, they ask loaded questions: You would want this product, wouldn't you? Ignoring that humans like to please, and the obvious right answer and thus their response would be somewhere on the spectrum of: "Sure, I guess so" through "Yes".
"Get familiar with the people you are designing for – have a cup of coffee with them - understand their life," Priya suggests. The initial contact should be face-to-face in their environment - in the taxi, at the at florist stand, in their home. Maybe later you can continue the relationship via email or phone for additional feedback and a sounding board.
Priya's presentation is on her blog and weaves interdisciplinary themes. She maps the needs findings based on several contexts: environment (fixed - restaurant, semi-fixed - street booth book vendor, or location based - taxi), pyschological motivation (Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory) and lifestage (influenced by Ptolemy or Shakespeare's seven stages of man and maybe possibly the Hindu's four stages).
Someone asks, "What role does respect play in work you do?" Priya takes a moment to answer: "Respect is empathy – really put yourself in their place."
And empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy separates, empathy connects. Empathy is an attitude of deep interconnectedness with others and both of you are fascinating multi-faceted humans.
Deep hanging out, heightened awareness and perception, empathy. Not a bad way to conduct qualitative market research to uncover the next killer app...or for that matter to spend every moment in your life.