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.

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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  • Regis Dudley

    Fabulous stuff here! Thanks for drawing attention to the people that clarify ideas for us PR folks. They're the heroes of ingenuity!

    It's not all about the main target market, especially during the research phase!

  • Tom Bassett

    We have done what you do through MindSwarms - great way to get to niche audiences.

  • Susanna King

    This is one of those brilliant ideas that seems obvious in retrospect. And hey, if you ever want to talk sidewalks, give me a call. I love sidewalks so much I started my own local sidewalk appreciation club.

  • Creatrix Tiara

    Jesus. This sounds like "let's gawk at the weirdos". The general idea may be sound, but this article doesn't seem to respect or appreciate people for who they are - it's more like "Let's examine these weirdos as though they are lab rats for our own profit". Even if all you're after is one aspect of who they are, it's not operated in a vacuum, and snarky comments about dominatrixes being surprisingly easy to find online sounds like you're not respecting them as people but as freak objects outside you.
    (also the header picture seems to be mocking trans women and those falling outside the gender binary. "ZOMG IT'S A MAN IN A DRESS HOW WEIIIIIIIIIIIIRD")

  • Jack Joseph

    My comment is a response to the comment from Creatrix. Odd fast co comments layout could make it read criticism of the article which it isn't and which i think makes a great point.

  • Jack Joseph

    I don't see how a process that seeks and values the opinions of these alternative communities is disrespectful to them -quite the contrary- and the tone is un-judgemental if enjoyably tongue in cheek. Maybe it's a UK thing that this article seems to celebrate rather than mock as you're suggesting.

    Consulting these people and incorporating their needs (where otherwise neglected) can only be a good thing for all end users of a product and as an equalizer between them, your hypersensitivity is surely more isolating and in my experience Dominatrices can look after themselves.

  • arthurascii

     Hi, these are fair points. You're not going to get people to co-operate creatively with you unless you come to them on their terms, something we're always careful to do. The words 'freaks and geeks' aren't mine, I didn't write the headline. But the proof of what we do is in our network, where over 2000 creative 'extreme consumers' of all kinds collaborate both on commercial projects (for which they're paid) and on social and artistic ones (where they - and we - are not). These range from books and technology development to art shows in Rio, Amsterdam and Shanghai among others.

    People wouldn't do that if they felt they were being gawked at, or treated as weirdos. You can see for yourself at

  • Simone Oltolina

    eheh, this is the second time I notice more than a hint of consumer research-bashing on Co.Design.

    Unfortunately every time I get the feeling the writer is basically trying to assert the supremacy of just one of the many elements that fuel innovation, with a more or less total disregard for the other pieces. Last time it was all about creatives and not being slave to data, this time it's extreme users/rejectors (btw: nice idea. been there, done that).

    The fundamental truth is in order to spur innovative thinking you need to combine many different ingredients: consumers, trends, feedback from opinion leaders, techies, etc., process all of this through qual approaches and then test the most promising leads through quant.

    ah, did I mention the fact that having the right process design in place and the ability to interpret results is also mandatory?

  • Simone Oltolina

    agree on the mindless use of focus groups, my point was more about the need to mix different 'voices', and not just the consumers' (extreme or not).

    also: the bashing didn't come from your (very enjoyable btw) article bur, rather, by the fact that I'm starting to see a pattern in what Co.Design publishes. Anyway, it was merely ironic, I still like this website very much.

  • arthurascii

    Hi Simone, of course interpreting what you're told is the key to all of this, I'd be out of a job if it wasn't. 

    I'm not bashing all of consumer research, just the mindless use of focus groups full of people who are asked to spend several hours thinking about things that they've never thought about before in their lives, like washing powder or batteries. What you get is not insight but post-rationalisation of instinctive emotional decisions. Having said that, research, like all industries needs a good bashing now and then. That's how progress happens. It's great that you've been there and done that, please drop me a line and let's share some war stories :-)

  • C. David

    Enjoyed the article. I've done enough consumer research on products and sat behind the glass watching senior execs either roll their eyes at the real-time feedback they're getting that they didn't want to hear, or pick their jaws up off the floor when they realize even average consumers can point out how their products aren't worth their time.

    Would love to listen in on an "extreme user" session to see what they come up with, and watch how they think.

  • Victor

    Great article. I do qualitative research and I do have to point out: the idea of power-users/ extreme consumers for idea generation is very good (and fresh), it does not mean not talking to regular consumers. They are the bulk of the target (if we refer to mainstream) for which you have to cater.

    Also, although groups do tend to be reticent about new ideas a good interpretation can go beyond the reticence and see if there are relevant reasons (you can even conclude a product has potential even if dismissed if you see that it actually fills a previously unmet need)

  • Heather

    It's great to see the core principles of design thinking put into practice. You may enjoy a presentation I made that highlights that exact process
    Thanks for giving real world examples.  I'm sure you love your job!

  • Gia Volterra De Saulnier

    Well, for us, since we run Renaissance Faires (in MA/NH area) our audience is mostly Geeks but we prefer the term "Rennies".  I also created a fan page and blog to help promote other Renaissance Performers and Merchants, and so far, so good.  I think if you find your "niche" or your "tribe" - you will have better luck gaining that type of audience if that is what you are looking for to attend your type of business/event.

  • Brian Millar

    Funny, just last night I was watching that episode of The Sopranos where they get dressed up and go to a Renaissance Fayre. It was called 'game of thrones' I think.

  • Udoka Chima

    I love your article. It reminds me of a quote that came out of Objectify which basically says design your products for the front and end of the bell curve and the middle will take care of itself.

  • Marrus

    Love this - and as an obsessive, successful artist/author who owns her own home when she'd not sleeping in her car post-partying with other gypsies after working a renaissance festival or BDSM event, lemme know if my brains might be of use to you. The questions y'all ask sound like they're a lot of fun to answer, or, make more questions! I'm over at

  • TribalStyleMarketing

    Actually, this makes total sense.  I can see the potential of this for sure.  As for normal people, your days are numbered!

  • Michelle Li

    I love it. One of Einstein's famous quotes - "If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." I believe strongly in this and your article exemplifies it in the most extreme and delightful way.


    Very true, if you want mediocre mundane product development conventional thinking breeds conventional ideas, you have to break out of the norm to discover something new and eccentrics are not bound by convention and should be in every Focus Group if we truly want to create unique and innovative products.
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