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Want Breakthrough Ideas? First, Listen To The Freaks And Geeks

If you want a mainstream hit, talk to the product’s extreme users, writes Sense Worldwide’s Brian Millar.

Want Breakthrough Ideas? First, Listen To The Freaks And Geeks

The stairs to our company’s fourth-floor loft posed a challenge for the dominatrixes. Many were wearing vertiginous Jimmy Choos and Christian Louboutins, and there was a bit of grumbling by the time they got to the top. I suppose they’re more used to dishing out suffering than enduring it themselves. As they made the trek through our building, they raised hardly an eyebrow from our staffers.

At Sense Worldwide, a branding consultancy specializing in working with extreme consumers, we’re accustomed to individuals who are a million miles away from that "regular customer." You know, the ones who sit in focus groups and fill out online surveys. For us, one day, it’s dominatrixes; the next, it’s obsessive compulsives, teddy-bear enthusiasts, prescription-drug addicts, or Nigerian hackers.

James, Maria, and Jean-Robert do our recruitment. They’re ridiculously sanguine about hunting down rare and extraordinary people. Today, I asked them to find us the top cocktail mixologists in Seoul, Korea. "No particular age or gender?" was all James asked. We seek out these obsessives, maniacs and eccentrics because they can help us get to big, breakthrough ideas. Some of them can show us how mainstream consumers will behave in a few years. Some of them have extreme needs that no product on the market can meet—so they modify them, or make their own. Some of them reject a whole category. You can learn a lot about mobile phones by talking to a power user. You can learn even more by talking to somebody who’s deliberately never bought one.

Extreme users think differently, work differently …

These extreme users have a willingness to experiment that’s far beyond the capacity of any design agency. And because they’re improving the thing that they love, they’re not going to charge you by the hour. We recently worked with some Brazilian transsexuals on hair-removal products, looking at ways of making the process less painful. I can assure you, we had their full attention. Some are still sending us ideas.

… and they listen differently.

When we get extreme users together in a room, we often sit them down with the top design and R&D wizards from our clients. We ask our clients to bring the ideas they could never sell internally, because radical people appreciate radical ideas.

Every good designer has felt the pang of watching a truly revolutionary concept being pulled apart by the passive-aggressive mouth-breathers who make up most focus groups. "This doesn’t taste like cola," they said about Red Bull. "Executive chairs are made of leather," they said about Aerons. "Only secretaries have keyboards on their desks," they said about PCs. All kinds of great ideas, from the Walkman to nacho chips, died in research with average consumers. That’s because regular people don’t like new things much. You know that, you’ve read Blink.

But what Malcolm Gladwell didn’t tell you is that there are people out there who will buy a great new idea. Perhaps they’ll even have it for you. Clubbers loved Red Bull: It helped them rave all night. A 4’11" lady loved the Aeron chair prototype so much that production was delayed until she was happy she could reach the controls.

Finding eccentric consumers is 50% of the challenge.

Of course, you need to find the right eccentrics. Then you have to convince them to help you. If you’re Harley Davidson or Nike (full disclosure: we work for Nike), then finding extreme consumers is easy. Just visit the Marathon des Sables and pick up some ultra-ultra marathon runners, or ride your prototype to the Sturgis bike rally every year.

But what if you’re working on something less glamorous? Like, say, a blister-and-sweaty-foot range? Well, then you have to think a bit more creatively. What kind of person spends a lot of the day in uncomfortable shoes but would have a professional interest in keeping their feet immaculate? Before long, your recruitment people are scouring the Internet for soldiers, dominatrixes, and models. (It turns out that dominatrixes are easy to find on the Web. Who knew?)

Believe in the method behind the madness.

At first, it seemed strange for me to take mainstream brands to fringe people. But it works. Kenyan microlenders and global retail bankers can learn a tremendous amount from each other. Health insurers and medical tourists can create services that benefit both of them. Running shoe design has been revolutionized by studying people who have never worn them. Now it seems strange to talk to regular people. What are they going to tell you that you don’t already know?

If you’re going to get ambitious about your next task, don’t go and talk to normal people about it. You’ll only get normal answers. Get out of your comfortable little world and step into a completely alien one. As we say round here, when worlds collide, transformation happens.

[Images: zubarev, Ruggiero S., anna karwowska, and photosani via Shutterstock]

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