Uncovering Unmet Needs

Lead facilitator: Marcus Lui

Executive Director, Design Thinking In Action

An Exercise in Empathy

Design thinking is a human-centric, problem-solving methodology. IDEO, the renowned American design consultancy and authority, divides the process into five phases – Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test – as a way to tackle problems.

“This is an introduction and guide to the practice of the critical empathy stage in design thinking,” said Marcus Lui, Executive Director, Design Thinking in Action. “It is about uncovering unmet needs through qualitative and quantitate research.” Marcus’s remarks came as he opened the third Hong Kong Design Centre Unleash! design thinking workshop, of which he was lead panel facilitator.

The first two phases – Empathise and Define – are about doing the right thing, while the latter three can be summed up as finding ways to do it right, added Marcus. Yet empathy is the very foundation of design thinking.

Workshop participants learnt that it is crucial for designers to step into the shoes of the end user. It is important to understand who these users are, what they do, how they do it and why they do it, as well as understanding their motivation and needs. Both quantitative and qualitative researches are needed to answer these questions. While quantitative research provides the overview – the numbers – qualitative research puts an issue in focus and offers a clear picture of the why and how behind the what. Qualitative research reveals the thinking and emotions that lie below the surface. Methods of research include observations (e.g. shadowing, shop along, digital tracking), interviews, surveys and even big data.

Empathy: Discover and Understand

Why do people do certain things? This is hard to pinpoint, so it is necessary to keep digging, even though the questions may be tedious for interviewees. To deduce a client’s true needs it is important to find out what the key motivators and barriers are.

Marcus spoke of his experience in the cosmetics and wellness sector. While the first answer to a question might be health-related, he observed, only further probing will reveal deeper issues of identity and how people want to be seen – or even loved. “These are the deeper things that they will not say or have no words to say,” he added.

Eva Lai, one of the panel facilitators, shared her experience of a project in the hospitality sector concerning the way people use airport lounges. Her team needed to understand the passenger journey, from packing to boarding. As her team probed the matter, its research focused on passengers’ needs in the lounge environment, such as socialising. This is impossible to determine from one question alone, she said.

MUJI is a good example of a brand that creates products “you didn’t know you needed but now that you’ve used it, you can’t live without,” the workshop participants heard. The company starts the product development process with home visits: it believes it can’t meet customers’ needs without actually going to their homes – looking at how they solve storage problems, for example.

Preparing for Interviews

A lot of preparation must be done before the interview stage. An important first step is recruitment: in-depth qualitative research requires a precise mixture of respondents. However, the objective of the mix is not to get a cross section of a typical customer group: the point of talking to a diverse group of users should be generative, broadening the scope of discussion to optimise the potential to identify opportunities.

The case was cited of an American car company operating in China, and a study that attempted to stem customer defection from 4S (official) dealerships offering servicing and maintenance. Surveys and data indicated obvious pain points of price, but an additional qualitative element highlighted other factors important to the customer. Asking “why” as well as “what” revealed customer perceptions about the value of the service, in this instance, the prestige of a car’s paint finish or other exterior detailing proved to be important to customers.

In this case, defining the right respondents involved recruiting those who changed their loyalty status, for example from regular to loyal user, from regular user to rejecter, from savvy user to rejecter and so on.

Breakout discussion: Simulate an Interview for Research

Following the discussion, the group split into six teams to develop an interview discussion guide; interview a team member to determine their health and wellness persona; and to understand how a customer might define a “healthy” snack.

Personas can connect us to a real person so that we may understand their values, needs, motivations and barriers. Descriptors and personas are tailored to a specific brand and product/service category to have maximum impact. The discussion guide is a script for the observations and interview session with the respondent and helps the interviewer stay focused and consistent to the objective of each part of the interview, though it need not be followed to the letter.

Questions should be open-ended and never leading. Interviewers can also play dumb and ask obvious questions – the answers will still be telling. Respondents should also be encouraged to tell stories while interviewers simply listen, all the while looking for non-verbal clues. Answers and observations should be recorded in a systematic way – what respondents do, think, say and feel – for further analysis.

Further insights can be inferred from the respondents’ background, and also their behaviour and beliefs relating to health and wellness. This can then be used to create all the qualities they would look for in a healthy snack.