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Daniel Hagmeijer
Head of Brand Experience Design
J. Walter Thompson, Indonesia


Blinded by numbers

Fueling innovation through understanding people

Of the 30,000 new products and services launches last year, around 28,000 of them failed. We are swimming in data about our audience, so why is failure still happening at this scale? Does reliance on quant data lead to less innovation, and more failure?

A recent article in Forbes stated that globally we create around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily. That’s over 2,500,000,000 GB of data per day. At the core of this data explosion is the digitization of Indonesia and the world. Even shoes and toothbrushes are generating data, and companies are capturing vast amounts of it. At the same time, on-demand access to products, services and experiences has raised consumers’ expectations to levels we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. Businesses need to innovate if they want to keep up.

Thanks to all of this data, we now know so much more about our customers. Where they buy, what they buy, when they buy, and many other things. Access to such plentiful data often leads the c-suite to demand that all actions should be based on quantitative data sets. While quantitative data is perfect for informing decisions that require answers to the question of “how many?” – which applies to most money-related matters - relying on quantitative data alone when it comes to innovation is a big mistake, and one that stands in the way of true innovation.

There is a sense of safety in quant, just like there used to be a safety in buying IBM stocks; you won’t get fired for buying IBM. The problem is that innovation is not about safety, it’s about exploring beyond the obvious. It’s messy, going back and forth between research and design. The start of the innovation track lacks, quite rightly, the quantifiable data the c-suite requires. It’s uncertain what you’ll end up with, because you don’t know yet what you are going to be inspired by. If we knew what we are going to create from the outset, it wouldn’t be very innovative, would it?

To innovate you need inspiration, something that is surprising and exciting at the same time. This is found in the weird, the abstract, the outliers. It comes from one mom who has found a way to level a spoon of powdered milk using the edge of a plastic container, or a student who started investing at 15 years old with only IDR100,000 by creating his own elaborate way of saving. This is exactly the type of data that tends to be ignored, even though it’s this that drives new design ideas. This is what distinguishes design research from market research.

You uncover opportunities by understanding people and finding out what it is that you don’t know you don’t know. So, with 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day and hard drives full of quantitative market research I wonder if we really understand people better. Do we know what people think? What context they behave in? What they feel? How we make them feel throughout each interaction with our product or service? What are the things that we couldn’t even fathom from our perspective? The golden nuggets of information that we are missing out on? How can we find a way to make an impact in people’s lives?

Doing research for innovation (based on the practice of design research) is not about avoiding bias (as it would be in most traditional research setups), but about being rigorous and understanding the extremes, rather than the general population. When innovating, you constantly need to create, confirm, build on, or disprove your ideas, even when doing initial research. The key is to explore all options and figure out the little details that could inspire design.

According to author and former P&G CMO Jim Stengel, “If you want to understand how a lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.” Too much research gets done in artificial settings. Getting inspired means going to out to talk to people and observing them in their natural environments. It’s as much about what people say as what they do, so we should seek to understand the words, tools and workarounds they use, to inspire our design. These hacks tend to be particularly interesting, as they highlight where a product or service falls short, and consumers’ informal innovations.

You don’t need massive sample sizes to get inspired. Mirum’s innovation arm, led by our Experience Design team, typically does design research with a sample size of anywhere between five and 20 people. We combine quantitative data with a deep qualitative understanding of people, often leading to different personas and persona-specific journeys to understand innovation opportunities and inspire design. Together with client experts, our innovation specialists generate a variety of different concepts that might help people. We then get consumer feedback, which inspires concept refinement and redesign. This process is repeated until we are confident we can make a real difference to our target consumer.

Using design research and creating concepts is like creating a menu of possibilities that a business can use to start their innovation journey. Then it’s time for quantitative research to shine, showing us the numbers around the business viability of each concept. At this stage, we need to choose what makes sense at scale.

If CEOs want to disrupt the market, transform their business, and make real impact on their customers, they have to be brave enough to invest in the fuzzy front-end of the innovation process, and take a leap of faith to trust the process to deliver inspiration for design innovation.