Call them end-users, clients, customers or consumers. The point is: they matter. They are the only key to truly understanding how your product, service or brand fits into their lives. Hearing directly from them offers the ability to challenge assumptions and maintain a healthy, viable and desirable flow of business. In this way, they are the ultimate authority on their own needs and should be the true inspiration behind brand updates, product improvements, innovation pipelines, marketing messages and more.
Ideally, an intimate and immediate connection to the end user should be free of distortion, but every brand struggles to stay in touch with their end-user. Some of the issue lies with problems of access. It is simply not possible to be in constant communication with consumers. Brands need to move forward, quotas need to be met, fires need to be put out and campaigns need to be acted on. But being a leader means doing these tasks with accountability to the end user’s wants and desires.
What happens when that accountability to the user is lost? At best, basic assumptions can be off, a campaign can miss a mark, or progress is delayed. At the very worst, major opportunities for innovation are missed and brands fall into disrepair while sales take a dive or margins are unnecessarily squeezed. In either scenario, the brand takes a hit in misspent resources or lost revenue and growth opportunities, and in some verticals, the ripple effects can be catastrophic.
"If you miss a generation with tech, you miss them for 20 years."
- Jeff Immelt, former CEO of GE
It’s not that we want to get it wrong. Things move quickly. Consumer opinions change rapidly and some things are too hard to measure, and without a measurement, they slip. Companies are doing themselves either a disservice or grave harm if they don't go out in the world and constantly triangulate the product, the consumer and the brand in a meaningful way.
Curious if your brand is on the right track or getting waylaid? Can you measure that? Here we ask some of those difficult questions. These red flags should serve as a sure sign your brand has lost touch with your end-user.
Rightness vs. Wrongness
Conifer spends a lot of our time in the field, listening and observing consumers' worlds firsthand. Bringing our client partners into the field with us is our favorite part of the job! It might seem simple to remind people of the adage about how the customer is always right, but consider this example: A client is seen applying carpet cleaner with an application method not included on the packaging. In the middle of a product demo you hear a whisper of: "they're using it wrong!” For brands who are out of touch with their end-user, their mindset can be laser-focused on this concept of “right” vs. “wrong.”
“Right” vs. “wrong” can quickly become a curiosity killer. This judgment leads to missed opportunities to inquire around the reasons the end-user is engaging with the product in an unanticipated manner. What is being revealed in this instance is that the customer has an unmet need – and behind unmet needs are growth opportunities and a pathway to innovation.
Words to watch out for: right, wrong, compliance, adherence, efficacy
The Label Maker
You know how the sayings all go about assumptions. Assumptions are powerful ways we unconsciously refuse to acknowledge any other perspective but our own. When we consider that we care about the thoughts and behaviors of our end-user, we need to consider the verbiage we use around our product and examine whether or not our use of jargon, labels and shoptalk are helping us understand the consumer or perhaps keeping us farther away and leading us astray.
Yes, an “eyelet” is the end of a shoelace, the end of a mascara brush is a “spoolie brush.” Yes, you could refer to crackers as “cheese carriers.” But why would you?
The intent behind this language is pure: to be hyper-specific about the details of your products. However, the unintended consequence is that labels import assumptions that disconnect you from consumers’ daily lives, and the real needs your product or service can fulfill.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you perceive crackers as “cheese carriers” if the end-user is a mom who keeps crackers stashed in the car readily available to soothe a hungry child and hold them over until she can get them to the next meal. No cheese to be carried here! This behavior puts your product in isolation from the whole experience and thereby removes the context needed for a true understanding of how your product or service is viewed or used in the real world.
What to watch out for: over-reliance on acronyms, jargon, shorthand, technical language and labels
It’s only human to think that our personal lifestyle, way of thinking, economic reality, educational background, political views, etc. are the most obvious "right" view on any matter. We’re all guilty of seeing things from our own bias even when we think we’re being unbiased. The subjectivity of being human simply can’t be helped. But awareness about our worldview is an important part of staying in touch with our end-user.
When someone on your team dismisses something that has happened in the field as anomalous or determines it to be outlier behavior, someone may be tangled up in bias bubble-wrap. What we mean by this is that dismissing others’ behavior means you break one of the rules of research: the user is always the expert. If this becomes a pattern, it can erode the foundation of a user-centered approach.
The rule of thumb to remember here is that all knowledge about consumer needs should come from the consumer directly and not be filtered through another’s worldview lens. As new concepts, opinions or viewpoints emerge it is important to not dismiss the data simply because it has never been seen before, or qualitative statements have never been heard before.
Tech executives can have a hard time absorbing things about their product or services that are said from a very low-tech end-user. It feels easier to dismiss their problem than to get curious about the potential design flaw. Likewise, it’s easier to dismiss a users problem understanding benefits packages when someone making ten times their salary simply thinks they could solve their problem by inviting their financial planner over for dinner to discuss tax shelter options.
When the end-user is being questioned or judged for their actions there is probably a worldview leak.
What to watch out for: dismissals of users points of view as outlier and anomalies, and the dangerous “I am the user” attitude (spoiler alert: you aren’t!)
We started this blog with, “Call them end-users, clients, customers or consumers. The point is: they matter.” But when you find yourself or your team in the back room of a focus group session snickering about a consumer's opinion, it’s time to hit reset and reestablish empathy for your user base. Even leaning too heavily on those labels (end-users, clients, customers or consumers) might actually be keeping us from remembering that they are humans first.
If you have the luxury of assuming that people are entirely rational actors in the play called "life" then you're probably not in a good place to learn about your consumer. Certainly, you won't be able to tap into their perspective enough to understand their opinions. When negativity abounds, curiosity dies and the opportunity to align the products or service by uncovering the why of consumer behavior goes with it.
What to watch out for: us vs. them dialogue, negativity, pessimism and cynicism, judgments and assumptions based on demographics or other differences
The world is changing fast. Along with it, consumer behavior is moving at an unprecedented clip. Brands looking to succeed, even those who have been successful in the past, must endeavor to move closer and closer to the most organic view of products, services and overall brand health.
If your job is to design a solution that maximizes the outcome of the sales figures for your company, then curiosity should be your rallying cry. As humans, when we get curious, we’re listening. Listening first to our teams to uncover potential pitfalls or barriers is essential. Then, we are freed up to truly listen to our users to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and how we can fit into them most ideally and sustainably.
Our professional advice: When in doubt, choose curiosity.
Check out our ResearchRX diagnostic quiz to find out what type of project would best suit your need!