business news in context, analysis with attitude

Content Guy’s Note: Each Monday, we are featuring an article previewing some aspect of the annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show, scheduled for May 4-6 in Chicago.

What’s the difference between being “user centered” and “customer oriented”?

That’s just one of the questions that will be addressed at FMI on Sunday, May 4, at an afternoon “Super Session” scheduled for 3:45 to 5:00 pm. “A Culture of Continuous innovation,” featuring Tom Kelley, of industrial design company Ideo, will examine how the ability to understand the users of their products is a cultural shift that corporations must make. In the current environment, Kelley says, companies everywhere have to learn to build the products and services customers crave even if they don’t know how to ask for them.

To get a preview of Kelley’s perspective, MNB conducted this exclusive e-interview:

MNB: The words "customer focused" and "user centered" (we typically prefer "human centered") are sometimes used interchangeably, but as you suggest, there's a significant underlying distinction that goes well beyond semantics.

Tom Kelley: As commonly used, I believe being "customer focused" involves asking the customer what they like or what they dislike, maybe even asking them what they WANT. That's generally a good thing to do, of course, but we believe it is not the best source of breakthrough innovations. Customers are VERY good at being consumers. For example, send them down the aisle of a supermarket, and they can assess product features and brands, make lightning-fast economic tradeoffs, run a multi-dimensional utility function in their brain so complex that it would keep a mathematician busy for hours, and still choose an item into their cart within a matter of seconds.

But if you take that same customer and ask them what their current breakfast cereal is missing or how soup could be re-packaged to make it better for them or what the store could do to streamline their household's food preparation, they are likely to give you a blank look. Worse yet, they might TRY to give you an answer out of politeness, but you shouldn't necessarily trust that answer.

If you take the human-centered approach, however, you don't have to ask as many questions. You follow the customers (and some NON-customers) home, watch them prepare and serve meals. 'Watch what gets eaten, how, and when. Watch the process of cleaning up and storing the leftovers, while you're at it. When people like cognitive psychologists or cultural anthropologists who are trained in the art of using these techniques do so, they often make discoveries. They get small epiphanies about what people NEED, even when the consumer themselves cannot articulate the need. And therein lies the key ingredient that distinguishes recipe for "human centered" from the one for customer focused: the human centered approach allows for uncovering latent needs and identifying potential breakthroughs even when the customer lacks the vocabulary to express their desires. Instead of listening to what people SAY and trying to infer what they THINK, a human-centered approach to innovation looks at what people DO and infers what they FEEL.

MNB: When you talk about understanding the needs of product-users, you key on an interesting dichotomy in the food industry. Retailers have two different kinds of products – perimeter or fresh items, which should make them different from other retailers, and center core grocery products, which you can get pretty much anywhere. Are there different need-sets that need to be addressed in different ways because of these differences?

Tom Kelley: Your question about "fresh items" and things that the customer can buy anywhere gets at the distinction (made famous in Pine and Gilmore's book "The Experience Economy") between commodities, products, services, and experiences. My advice would be to always avoid being put into the "commodity" category because once your store and your products are truly viewed as commodities, then you are forced to compete solely on price. Price is always a huge issue in retailing, but customers are willing to pay a little more for what they perceive as better quality, better service, or a better experience. People pay three times as much for a latte at Starbuck's than they used to pay at the local coffee shop and they happily pay a premium for pre-washed, packaged salads. There are individual product examples throughout the store, but the store itself is a service offering as well of course. My wife, for example, drives right by the Safeway store closest to our house in order to get to one a couple of miles up the road which she believes has better flowers and fresher produce. You're probably asking questions like (a) is she crazy and (b) do they really have better produce, and my answer is IT DOESN'T MATTER. This particular shopper (one I happen to be married to) has decided that the store experience is better one place than the other, and she is willing to drive literally more than twice as far in pursuit of that experience. Same brand. Presumably same prices. NOT a commodity in my wife's mind. Whatever mix of ingredients sets those stores apart, it makes one of them more desirable.

As I mention in my book, “The Art of Innovation,” businesses might benefit by looking at their service offering like an Olympic decathlon. To win the decathlon, you don't have to be best in the world in all ten events. The goal is to be exceptional in at least a few things, and then a solid performer in the other categories. In other words, it's perfectly OK if some aspects of your product/service offering are simply on par with what others have, as long as you have a few notable features that set you apart. This only works, of course, if your customers really VALUE your special offerings and -- here's the tricky part -- THEY get to decide what's important.

MNB: Can you give an example of a retailer outside the food business that recognized a product or service craved by customers that they didn’t know how to ask for, and that they provided with great success?

Tom Kelley: Some of the best retailers are ones that seem to "walk the walk," stores that exude the values that matter to their customers. They create their own marketing "buzz" that contributes to their success.

For example, I recently stayed in Dallas, Texas, across from a store you may be familiar with called "Outdoor World.” In a couple of days at that hotel, at least a half a dozen people mentioned how remarkable the store was, so I felt compelled to check it out. Buzz marketing at its best. What I encountered was a truly Texas-sized store reminiscent of Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel with an incredibly large selection of camping, fishing, and outdoor adventure gear. The products were not the most remarkable part, however. Every department I went to seemed to have a super knowledgeable expert demonstrating some new fishing reel or camping tent. My favorite part was an above-ground "lake" in the center of the store, stocked with the largest bass ever caught by a local Outdoor World customer, complete with a plaque commemorating the big catch. I have not done any follow-up research on the store, but the first hand experience I had suggested that here was a store with (a) unparalleled selection, (b) expert advice to help me pick the right stuff (c) an atmosphere that somehow put me in to sportsman/outdoorsman mode, and (d) an implicit promise that if I did something truly remarkable with the equipment they sold me, they might commemorate my success in the store. The place is what Seth Godin would refer to as a classic Purple Cow, something so remarkable that no one would EVER call it a commodity.

But you don't have to build a whole Outdoor World to serve your customer's latent needs. There are LOTS of ways to do so on a smaller scale. The Levi Strauss store on Union Square in San Francisco has a system they call "Original Spin" that allows them to quickly scan your dimensions and give you a perfect fitting pair of jeans every time. I never knew I needed that service until they started offering it, and now I am a devoted customer. Keplers, a wonderful independent bookseller in my neighborhood, is apparently staffed 100% with true booklovers (which doesn't necessarily cost them extra) so you ask can give you advice and recommendations. IKEA stores provide day care facilities so that you can shop their store with fewer distractions---and probably buy more, of course. The grand piano in Nordstrom stores seemed like a gimmick to me when they opened their first store in my area, but it did add a certain special quality to the store, and it was one of the things that everyone seemed to mention when describing the new store. I was a very happy Blockbuster Video customer until Netflix came along with a mail-order version that offered one big difference: I never have to pay a late fee.

Using human-centered design techniques (or whatever else works for you) try to figure out what your customers really want---products and services that will help them save time or feel better about themselves or ever-so-slightly improve the quality of their lives. Design great experiences for your customers and they will never see you as a bland commodity. If you do those two things well, I believe customers will reward you with their business, they'll remain loyal to your brand, and maybe they'll even tell their friends about how much they like what you do for them.
KC's View: