The following is an excerpt from Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase with Simon Steinhardt (Harper Business).
You and I may never have met before. I have no idea where you are or how you’re consuming this book. I will, however, venture a guess: Wherever you may be reading this, you’re not doing it in the shower. If I’m wrong, well, bravo for you. But if I’m right, my question to you is this: Why aren’t you in the shower right now?
It may seem like a dumb question, but in design research it’s exactly the sort of foundational inquiry that allows us to get at the core of user behavior. Unless you’re designing wedding rings or pacemakers, there’s no such thing as a 24-7-365 user. My colleagues and I spend a great deal of time thinking about touchpoints—the times and places where users would likely be interacting with the product or service we’re designing—and triggers that would prompt users to act in one way or another during those times and in those places. These factors can highlight new opportunities to serve unmet needs, or to better tailor products and services to fit the circumstances in which customers use them. But in order to understand touchpoints and triggers, we have to take into account the boundaries that separate use from disuse—the border between doing and don’t-ing.
Let’s take this mindset to a café, where most people would look around and see a bunch of people seated at tables drinking coffee, chatting, and typing on laptops. An inquisitive researcher, however, might ask why none of them are in the restroom, why anyone would even want to go to the restroom, or even whether it would behoove management to provide free diapers for customers.
Questions like these, however dumb they may seem, allow us to outline the parameters of user behavior—and human behavior. We ask these questions because we know that behavior isn’t simply dictated by the laws of nature and the laws of states, but also by cultural norms, social contexts, interpersonal relationships, personalities, and perceptions. When we look at any behavior, even something as mundane as a trip to the restroom, we can uncover all sorts of factors at play. Our goal is to put the parameters of behavior into perspective. And in order to paint the proper picture, we need to put it in the proper frame.
Over the course of a corporate field study, it’s common to collect a great deal of information from participants about the minutiae of their lives: from what time they get up in the morning to the last thing they do before closing their eyes at night; where and with whom they hang out; where they go shopping; what they wear; why they prefer one brand over another; with whom they communicate and why. Some of it may be quite valuable, some entirely trivial, and we use a variety of techniques to help us figure out what matters. When we move from collecting all this information into analyzing and synthesizing it, we are looking to do two things: make sense of our observations and then reveal patterns and trends that we believe are accurate enough to share with our clients.
To a client or outside observer, design ideas that aren’t presented within a research-based, real-world framework can seem arbitrary. For organizations that were weaned on quantitative market research, it’s not enough to be inspired—they want to be able to trace that inspiration back to its source.
A multilayered synthesis process runs throughout every field study. During an interview, the questions evolve from those that build a foundational understanding to ones that include more inferred assumptions. As soon as we finish an interview or other data collection session, the team members assemble in the nearest café and review the data we’ve collected, working to build a shared understanding of what we thought was relevant. Data, like milk, is best consumed fresh; the longer we take to analyze it, the more likely we are to lose the thread that connects it to its original meaning. At some point in the day the team heads back to our "mission control," most often a room in a hotel, guesthouse, or home, where the walls are papered with notes and ideas. Before leaving the city, while we still have access to our local team, we like to spend a full day sifting through the data. Later, back at the studio, we might spend a week or two in a project room surrounded by the data pinned to the wall on giant foam boards, where the team systematically processes it through different lenses.
At this stage, we need to begin organizing the data into a cohesive framework, but the right one—one that creates order out of the chaos of data, setting all the little statements, events, and outcomes to a story—is rarely easy to find. A good framework helps the researcher accomplish several things: It tells a big truth, substantiated by all the important data and contradicted by none of it; it often maps behaviors across space and/or time; it captures the different behaviors across a range of individuals, taking into account idiosyncrasies without overgeneralizing them; and it creates a narrative around causes and effects, so that reasonable assumptions can be made if anyone tries to throw a "what-if" at it. If someone can glance at it, understand it with minimal explanation, incorporate it into their worldview, and then use it to contemplate new scenarios, then it’s working.
If there’s such a thing as a default framework in corporate research, it’s the customer journey map, which provides detailed information about each event in a customer’s typical day, diagrams how she moves from one event to another, and identifies all the touchpoints where she may use the product or service we’re designing. Customer journey maps tend to be very precise in their documentation and technical in their appearance—many boxes connected by many lines. They’re useful for building a basic level of understanding, and certainly no one would accuse them of being arbitrary, but reading them can sometimes feel like a mechanical process.
There are numerous alternatives to the customer journey map, but there is one in particular, less commonly used but phenomenally useful when applied skillfully, that can bring the diffuse spectrum of almost any human behavior into focus: the threshold map.
Threshold mapping allows us to map out "default" conditions—the normal state a person experiences a majority of the time (for example, most people feel clean enough throughout the day that they won’t drop whatever they’re doing and hop in the shower if it’s available)—and then understand what happens when a person crosses the line into an alternative condition. Often, the feelings that people experience as they approach or cross a threshold lead them to think and act differently.
Design studios, workshops, and laboratories are good at testing and exploring what their products are capable of and what they can withstand when users put them through the wringer of everyday life. Most warranties are predicated on "normal wear and tear," and you can bet a team of researchers spent a good deal of time defining "normal." But increasingly companies around the globe are looking to inform design with greater insight into the makings of their users, not just their products, and what drives use in the first place. And in order to understand behavior, we need to get out of the lab and into people’s natural environs.
Often, when people cross a threshold from one state into its alternative, or when they avoid crossing that boundary by taking an action to steer themselves away from the borderline, it’s a matter of maintaining standards of acceptability and appropriateness. For designers to understand what lies within the boundaries of acceptable use and what lies outside those boundaries, they need to understand the contexts in which things will be used, and the range of likely conditions that will change that context in some way.
In the same way that a testing laboratory can help us understand the boundary between normal and extreme (and probably out-of-warranty) use of a product, design research helps us understand the boundaries of normal behaviors. And one of the strongest ways of communicating normal and outlier behavior is through a threshold diagram.
To learn more about threshold diagrams, buy Hidden in Plain Sight.
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From the book HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: How To Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase with Simon Steinhardt. Copyright (c) 2013 by Jan Chipchase. To be published on April 16, 2013 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.