Designing for humans

Apologies for the gap between posts…it’s been a busy few months!

This particular post subject matter is a direct result of a number of projects we’ve worked on over the past year or so, and the way in which we find ourselves explaining what we do to new and potential clients. Despite the myriad processes, techniques, tools, technologies and buzzwords circling around the business of new product development these days (and I’m not going to even mention how many conversations I’ve had with clients about ‘getting a 3D printer’…), we inevitably end up boiling our offer down to a simple premise….designing for humans.

Before I wade in too far, too soon, let me provide a little background…

We are privileged enough to work with a range of clients, from very large to very small, on a huge variety of projects. From chocolate bars, fresh coffee and horticultural packaging to military equipment, cancer diagnosis and portable healthcare monitoring…there is very little ‘market’ commonality in what we do. A jack of all…as I’ve eluded to in many a prior post. However, in delivering this plethora of project work, we inevitably find ourselves embroiled in early conversations with clients about ‘user needs’. Some clients give it barely a second thought, as though the end user is merely a necessary nuisance. Others have more words for different users than the eskimos have for snow. Users, consumers, shoppers, customers, clients, purchasers, gatekeepers, permission-granters, enablers…you name it the list keeps on truckin’. Particularly in larger corporations, there is a vocabulary associated with ‘Consumer Insight’ that makes you feel like we are observing an alien race from a safe distance. “64% of gatekeepers felt that they *might* feel the need to purchase X if they were short on time, on the go and under pressure to cook dinner”. Whilst I completely understand the need to do this – as a microscopically small shift in purchasing dynamic can have huge impacts on production and profitability within such large corporations – there is a forensic level of clinical distance that leaves me feeling that these people, these ‘end users’, are not necessarily being treated as the fallible, unpredictable human beings we all are. We are not treated as human…we are simply a purchasing demographic categorised by our lack of time and disposable income!

Notwithstanding that, you also have the rather complex nature of multi-tiered customer levels. So for instance, for a large FMCG brand, a ‘customer‘ is the supermarket looking to stock their brand, a ‘buyer‘ is the rottweiler within the supermarket business looking to extract as much money as possible from the brand for ‘promotional support’, the ‘shopper‘ is the person who picks the brand off the shelf and puts it in the trolley/basket, the ‘consumer‘ is the person who take it out of the fridge at home and ‘consumes’ it (which always makes me think of some sort of B movie sci-fi monster with galactic ooze!) and the ‘gatekeeper‘ is the person who gives permission within the family to the ‘consumer’ to consume. Still following?

Now I understand all of this, and it makes complete sense, but there is a part of my brain which refuses to believe that people fall into ‘categories’. As was clearly demonstrated in the recent general election, any attempt to second guess the general public is futile. I may well be a middle class, white male living in a middle class countryside village, with 2 children, a cat, a mortgage and enough disposable income to buy a Snickers bar every once in a while, but I’m also human. And humans have foibles, idiosyncrasies, subtleties, quirks, habits, preferences, desires, secrets, failings, admirations and egos. Each and every one of which is impossible to define or predict. I detest camping with a passion and know all the words to the Frozen soundtrack. I’m a self-confessed Star Wars nerd and am quietly proud of showing off to my kids that I can fire a stream of ‘squirty cream’ into my open mouth from a decent distance! Stick that in your ‘consumer insight’ pipe and smoke it!

We are all human. We are all different…even if somewhere in some corporate headquarters we have been deemed to occupy the same category in a spreadsheet.

Which is why, whenever we work with a client on a project we proudly state that we are the ‘consumer guardians’…the guys that represent the people at the end of the chain, and we steadfastly hold firm to this as we go through the project – often resulting in arguments over the need to retain certain features and more ‘human’ elements that can often be sacrificed in cold, stale, besuited meeting rooms. Yes, we also ensure that the project is designed to a specific budget, within a specific timescale and to specific production parameters, but more than anything, it is imperative that the guy (ironically) without a voice…the person who will ultimately choose to purchase this item or be responsible for using it, is considered and – as much as possible – understood.

That might sound like a ridiculous thing to say. You would assume that every product has at its very core, the desire to fulfil the needs of the ‘end user’, but it is surprising how many projects that may very well start out with such intentions and vigorous research, ultimately lose sight of this simple vision. It becomes a war of attrition…a fight between cost, timescales, logistics, manufacturing, brand guidelines, personal agendas and politics. I’ve seen so many projects with earnest intent fall headlong into a simple effort to implement, with a gradual disregard to the reason for its core existence. It becomes a ‘brand hero’ or a ‘flagship innovation’, rather than something that actually suits the actual people who might actually buy it.

We often get asked by potential clients, what research ‘tools’ and ‘techniques’ we use to validate our findings. In all honesty, whilst there are many tried and tested ways to understand ‘consumers’ and research behaviour (I won’t go on a tirade about ‘over researching’ or consumer groups that skew results to justify a research fee!), we find that good solid thinking based on sound human understanding sees us through. A robust story that works. Something that just makes sense. A story that holds true regardless of complexity or technology. If you can try and ‘metaphorically’ break it by being human and then try to ensure that you cater for those circumstances as you develop the product, then you have a fighting chance of creating something that might work for people. Think like a human – not like a marketeer or accountant – and above all remember that it will be a human that ultimately interacts with the fruits of your hard labour. Empathy is the one key skill to being a good product designer, and whilst it doesn’t help you sketch, 3D model, engineer or implement, it will ultimately ensure that as you meander through those tasks, the underlying story remains true and solid.

I feel very strongly about the need to retain the ‘for human’ element in everything we do (so much so that I’m considering including it in a new Square Banana brand strapline). There are very, very few projects we have worked on (and I can think of) that don’t result in some significant form of human engagement, interaction or enticement. It is often very easy to side with pragmatism or speed to get a product completed, but it may end up slowly compromising the end result. Making it less usable or engaging. We try – as much as possible – to ensure that we fight that corner. Representing them without their knowledge. Trying to ensure that the best possible outcome is one that favours the people at the very end. The humans.

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