Category Archives: Ethnography

Simplicity Will Disrupt Your Business

by Dan Woychick

Last summer, my siblings and I established a family endowment in honor of our parents. Tom and Mary Woychick were lifetime volunteers, philanthropists of time more than money, who supported a wide variety of causes in addition to their church – from homelessness to veterans, at-risk youth to education. With this fund, we plan to provide financial support to continue their work.

Have you ever tried to give money away? It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. In the process of vetting organizations to evaluate our options and establish parameters for giving and recognition of the gifts, we experienced a surprising range of responses.

Some organizations engaged us immediately, expressing gratitude for our consideration and outlining options for our gift. After contacting one nonprofit, I was passed off to three different people, each of whom failed to respond to emails or phone calls in a timely manner. One small, shoestring operation has been so overwhelmed with day-to-day commitments, that they have yet to suggest a suitable place to invest our pledged gift. And one organization – my Dad’s alma mater – never responded at all.

Complexity is not the enemy
Whether it’s Moore’s Law or Murphy’s Law, the world’s evolution seems to conspire against simplicity. As organizations grow, and employees come and go, it is difficult to establish and maintain clear processes for handling things … like in-bound inquiries, for example. But organizations, technology, and problems are not becoming less complex, so what can be done?

The real enemy is confusion. Anyone who has tried to navigate a television remote with too many buttons and too-small type, pored over an invoice from a health care provider, or attempted to speak with a real person at a credit card company can attest to the need for simpler solutions to complex problems.

Simple solutions don’t accomplish less. In fact, because they eliminate processes or remove barriers that prevent a superior customer experience, simplicity allows people to do more. Simple solutions, essentially, hide all the complex things that are going on behind the scenes so that less is required of the customer. They make it look easy.

Seeing like a customer
Most people are capable of recognizing a handful, if not dozens, of things – large and small – that should be improved within their organization. When one of these projects finally attracts resources to address the problem, the next trick is separating our own needs from those of our customers.

Recently the Minnesota Department for Revenue redesigned its website, which is good, because the site needed an overhaul. Unfortunately, based on personal experience making the monthly payroll tax deposit, everything from logging in to navigation has become more convoluted. Why would they do that? I can only assume the website works better for them – on the back end. It’s apparent they didn’t consider their users first.

It’s been said that the devil’s in the details, when truthfully it’s the human-centered details that matter. Developing more acute empathy for our customers is the key to designing better experiences for them. As Aaron Levie wrote for Fast Company, “It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.”

The bottom line is that simplicity inspires trust, which ranks among the most important of marketing objectives.

It’s not easy
Simplicity isn’t simple. If it was, there would be more of it, and it wouldn’t be disrupting sleepy little product categories or entire industries. Here are a few ways to start building a bias toward simpler solutions and a more customer-centered organization:

  • Examine your brand position. What promise are you making to your customers? A strong brand position not only brings focus to marketing strategy and tactics, it should act as a filter for decision making up and down the organization. When in doubt, which course of action best supports that promise?
  • Know what business you’re in. Southwest Airlines has become one of the most profitable airlines in the world, even though they do almost everything “wrong” – no seat assignments, no meals, flying to less-popular airports. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s longtime leader, once said, “I tell my employees that we’re in the service business, and it’s incidental that we fly airplanes.”
  • Consider the entire process from start to finish. Everyone wants ROI these days, but marketing can’t be isolated from the rest of an organization’s operations and produce a long-term impact. It’s the equivalent of being asked to fix a car’s transmission and then being handed a bucket and a sponge. True simplicity – and marketing success – permeates an organization. It’s not just an add-on.
  • Ruthlessly edit. Practice saying “no” to additional features, processes, or services that dilute your focus. Reductive thinking – what can be removed, organized, or hidden – leads to improved customer experiences. George Bernard Shaw, in correspondence with a friend, once wrote, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Take the time.

We live in a time of unprecedented turbulence, but one thing hasn’t changed – simplicity remains a tremendous advantage. What barriers are preventing your organization from being a disruptive force in the market?

Related content:
The Simplicity Thesis
Simplicity Isn’t Simple
Designing for the Obvious

Travel Tips

Traveling provides opportunity to explore terrain – both real and figurative – that is unattainable from the comfort of an easy chair. Seven weeks ago, my family and I began a long-awaited trip covering four countries and several time zones. We’ve seen and learned a lot in our travels, some of which is even applicable to non-profit design and marketing. For example:

Be prepared, but don’t overprepare
It’s foolish to embark on any journey without planning your route. It’s equally foolish to think you can or should control every last detail. Trust in your preparation, but remain nimble enough to seize opportunities as they arise – or adjust when things don’t go exactly as planned. They never do.

Watch and learn
Reading about something will never replace real-world experience. Whether entering a new country or a new market, you can never assume people will behave as expected. Observe how people get around, what they like, and where they go. Consider it real-time ethnographic research – then modify your tactics to fit prevailing conditions.

Your reputation precedes you
Chances are others have been where you’re about to go. Fair or not, this can color the locals’ perceptions and behavior towards you. How does your brand play in a new market? What do they know about you (or your type)? This knowledge should guide what you wear, what you say, and how you act.

Meet them half way
This is a friendly visit, not a hostile takeover. Accordingly, being polite goes a long way. To communicate, make an effort to learn the lingo – even a few key phrases. Then understand that regardless of your efforts, some will remain unreceptive. When people want to hear you, they will. If they’re not interested, they won’t.

Don’t try to do too much
Whether you’re visiting museums, eating gelato, or relaxing in the sun, you need to know your limitations. The same holds true when marketing an organization. An overpacked day planner, like an overpacked suitcase, will eventually hinder your ability to function effectively. Focus on doing a few things really well.

Apply your lessons
In marketing, consider each audience you’re trying to reach as if visiting a new country. Every new experience enriches us in ways we can’t predict. By remaining aware of your surroundings and learning as you go, you can become a better traveler and a better communicator.

P.S. One last piece of advice: Travel (and work) with people you like.

Related Content:

The Importance of Vacation
by Jonah Lehrer

Taking Off
The Woychick family’s travel blog

The Right Tool For The Job

by Dan Woychick

Last weekend, I agreed to help a friend install his new home theater. First, we needed to remove the baseboard so we could keep all the new wires hidden from view. Lacking a crowbar, my friend grabbed the nearest screwdriver and proceeded to gouge the wooden baseboard and scratch the painted wall. As any do-it-yourselfer knows, using the wrong tool can make a small project a lot bigger.

Smart communications professionals recognize the importance of gathering consumer insights. Unfortunately, sometimes, they also reach for the wrong tool.

Lack of focus
When seeking audience opinion, the tried-and-true focus group is often the research tool of choice. Get a moderator, some pizza or doughnuts, and 8-10 people in a room, then watch the insights fly. But qualitative research from a group of strangers gathered around a table may not yield the insights you need.

Focus groups are best used when you have little knowledge about how your product, service or organization is perceived. They can give you a good starting point for further, targeted research. More often, you need specific information.

Simulating behavior
If, like me, you’re lacking a degree in cultural anthropology, interviewing a representative sample of your users about their needs is the next best thing. Interacting with and observing individuals one-to-one often reveals truths that remain hidden in a group setting.

It’s common practice to conduct this kind of research when embarking on a website redesign. Individual test subjects answer questions and complete a series of tasks, giving designers insight into how the site can be made more functional.

A similar approach can be useful whenever “navigation” is involved, such as with magazines, forms, and environmental signage. With as few as 4–5 people, we’ve gathered useful feedback simply by watching and asking a few questions. For example:

  • How often do you currently read (or use) this [publication, form, building]?
  • What is your overall impression?
  • Do you find this valuable, relevant, informative, etc.?
  • Is it easy to find the information you’re looking for?
  • Are there other sources you rely on to get similar information? Where?
  • How does this make you feel about the organization?

By keeping things simple, it’s easier to commit to an iterative process, conducting tests early and often.

Quality, not quantity
Quantitative research is useful when an organization wants to benchmark results over time. Many people place their trust in cold, hard data – the more of it the better. Seeking statistically valid numbers, however, presents two big hurdles – time and budget.

Depending on what is being measured – and for what reason – the importance of sample size is often overestimated. If I’ve interviewed five people who have difficulty navigating your website, surveying 500 or 5,000 more provides very little benefit. There are diminishing returns with each additional data point.

Watch, listen and refine
Many decisions are better served by more frequent questioning of fewer people, refining as you go. Making a habit of interviewing your customers will make your organization more responsive and serve as a tool for continual improvement.

Related Content:
Don’t Make Me Think
To Focus Group, Or Not To Focus Group
Conducting a Needs Analysis

Expand Your Way of Seeing

By Dan Woychick

In the modern business environment, nothing is trusted more than cold, hard facts. Simply using one’s own eyes and ears to observe how people interact with your product or service, on the other hand, is an underappreciated skill.

Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments, so you can get a holistic understanding of their world. – LiAnne Yu, cultural anthropologist

While it’s not necessary to be a trained social scientist to benefit from observing others, like any skill, regular practice increases proficiency. When communicators put themselves in others’ shoes, they begin to see beyond their own preconceptions, leading to more compelling stories and experiences.

What’s bugging you?

If you’ve ever been to an airport, chances are you’ve got an opinion or two about how the whole experience could be better – from parking to check-in to boarding your flight. When it comes to personal preferences, you’re probably not as unique as you think.

Keeping an ongoing, personal “bug list” is a good place to start training yourself to note patterns of behavior in real-world settings. Those behaviors will provide clues to where opportunities for improvement exist.

Take the time to gather new insights. If you’re far removed in age and experience from your target audience, curiosity is the key to obtaining new points of view. When it comes to honing your powers of observation, look for a few people that fit your target audience. It’s better to know a few people deeply than many people superficially.

Imagining action

When conducting on-site research is impractical – maybe you’re planning for a winter event in late summer – it may be useful to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns.

Take a college, for instance. Don’t think of class registration, think of a specific student registering. This involves action – all of the steps and processes around this activity. Is there a building that registering students need to visit? Picture that environment. Are there forms to fill out? How could they be simpler? Imagine the experience of a real person moving through the necessary steps to register for classes.

If you know your organization well, you can “see” that experience. Where are the opportunities to improve communications? If that experience is improved, does it present marketing opportunities?

Define the problem.

The tighter the focus of your observation, the more valuable the insights will be. For example, broadly trying to encourage more people to make donations isn’t nearly as helpful as asking: What are the competing priorities for young, first-time donors?

Removing barriers to communication will make interacting with your organization more intuitive. Once you become more attuned to audience behavior, keen observational insights will make your communications and marketing more powerful, clear, and well understood.

Related content:

Ethnography Primer