Taunton Library went automated recently, replacing the friendly librarian at the front desk with ranks of what look like supermarket self-service checkouts. You can now borrow, return and renew books and DVDs, and pay any fines or fees you owe, armed only with your library card. Simple. Or at least it should be. I’m a reasonably tech-savvy person yet I regularly find myself bamboozled: going round and round in circles, trying to work out what to do next, logging out by accident and having to start again. I may be wrong but I’d hazard a guess that no library user went anywhere near those machines before they were installed.
I mention this because last week I was lucky enough to catch a Directors Forum presentation on design thinking from Simon Gough of Redfront. Design thinking is all about getting closer to your customers to really understand what they do, how they think and what they need, so you can focus your efforts on building products and services that deliver value to them, and avoid wasting resources creating stuff that no one wants.
In a world where constant change is a given, spending time and money creating the ‘perfect’ product in isolation, then presenting it to the world with a big ‘ta da!’ no longer works. Instead, smart companies are bringing their customers into the design process: testing out ideas early, and then constantly refining and adapting them.
A great example is Zappos, poster child for social customer service. When conventional wisdom said that people wouldn’t buy shoes over the internet, Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn tested out his idea for an online shoe store by doing a deal with his local Footwear etc shop. In return for allowing him to take photos of their shoes and advertising them online, Swinmurn promised that if he sold any, he’d buy them from Footwear etc at full price. His pilot worked, the orders came in, and 10 years later Swinmurn sold Zappos to Amazon for nearly $1 billion.
Bringing your customers into the design process can sound like a scary prospect. Why expose something that’s incomplete, rough around the edges, or maybe little more than a kernel of an idea to a critical external audience? For some companies, design thinking is a difficult cultural shift.
You may not be ready to go as far as mobile network giffgaff, who have built a community of users to collaborate and provide feedback on a host of business issues, from product development to marketing. But you can start small, with social media listening. There’s a rich vein of valuable customer data to be mined in social networking channels, if you’re willing to listen. Unlike traditional market research surveys and focus groups, you’re not restricted to a specific audience or set of questions, and there’s significantly less risk of dodgy answers. Instead, you get to hear what people really think, in their own words, in real time.
The volume of social media chatter can feel overwhelming, but there’s a wealth of tools available to help sift out the nuggets from the background noise, from the free to the budget-busting.
Listening, testing out ideas, and bringing the customer view into internal discussions can help to shift perceptions, identify new segments and unmet needs, and expose those long-held assumptions that can send you in the wrong direction with product or service design.
In the end, I’m a big enough fan of Taunton Library that I’m willing to take the time to learn how to use their new system, and slowly I’m getting the hang of it. If you’re a commercial company that builds first, and brings your customers in as an afterthought, you may not be so lucky. Umm, Windows 8 anyone?
If you’d like to find out more about design thinking, check out Simon’s Masterclass on Initiating Business Growth, part of the new Knowledge Academy programme developed in partnership with Kjelgaard. With Suw Charman-Anderson, I’ll be running a Knowledge Academy Masterclass on Social Technologies, launching at the end of June.