A Powerful Lens: People’s Purpose

Indi Young
Jan 30, 2021 · 7 min read

Purpose is a way of framing how you look at something that brings so much more clarity of perception. When I say, “purpose,” I mean what a person is trying to accomplish, not what your team wants to know or what your org hopes to achieve within the year. It’s what the people you are trying to help are trying to plan or decide or do, the thing they hope to achieve or make progress on, without restriction to your org or its solutions.

An organization’s purpose is a very different perspective than a person’s/people’s purpose.

For example, a purpose might be “get my life back to the way it was before the accident” or “keep my family members at least talking to each other” or “replace the [appliance, device, tool] that just broke” or “deal with the pain of losing my [income source, home, ability to work]” or “line up a place to [eat, sleep, get clean]” or “figure out how to motivate myself.”

If you are creating something that supports other people, look at their purposes. You can probably think of two or three purposes right now, if you pause.

The lens of purpose clarifies so many parts of your work:

  • Framing research
  • Re-framing insights from past research
  • Creating support for peoples purposes
  • Categorizing data differently, based on purposes
  • Re-framing your strategy
  • Re-framing your metrics

This is a lot to claim. I’ve got a lot of examples that I’ve been discussing with folks.

Let’s say you’re working for an apparel & shoes brand that wants to reduce returns (a.k.a. help customers make the right purchase for the first time). You have data about which items get returned more frequently, and that data includes all kinds of demographics that you could guess about as causes. Instead, take a peek at people’s purposes. Here are some purposes with respect to purchasing apparel or shoes:

  1. Replace an item that got [worn out, damaged, lost, borrowed-and-not-returned] with basically that same item, because it was good/right
  2. Find an item I’ve never had to get before, for a new context for me
  3. Find an item to portray or project an image of myself, my philosophies

If someone returns something they bought under the first purpose, it might be because the replacement item wasn’t the same as the original. Or it might be because there were second thoughts about actually needing it, or someone else casting judgment on replacing the item. You might have some data about this collected in the “reason for return” free text field, if you have one of those, and if people filled it out. You might have data from your call center, if you have reps or analysts who categorized reasons and details from people who called. Or you might not have this data, because you didn’t know you needed it.

Why does this data help?

You can reduce returns by addressing these reasons in the product information, before a person makes the purchase. Maybe you had to switch factories or materials for some reason, and the new product is shinier or slightly thinner. If you explain this, explain the reasoning behind the new choices, then people can make a more informed choice. (Right now people must rely on reviewers to post something about it, and must sift through reviews from people who have different purposes that are irrelevant data for this particular purpose of replacing this item.)

Try this exercise for purpose #2 above. Again you’ll find new information to include that will help people make decisions from their purpose lens.

This example demonstrates how a shift in perspective, to people’s purpose, helps you support them better, and helps your org reduce costs.

Of course it’s more complex. There are dimensions to add, such as other people involved, context, and other constraints. But you don’t have to explore them all at once.

With respect to the apparel & shoes example above, here are some other dimensions that can be applied to each of the three purposes listed:

  • Any of these purposes on behalf of someone else who can’t do it themself at the moment
  • Any of these purposes where the item is socks or an overcoat or things that are not that fitted
  • Any of these purposes where the item is a bra or pants or things that are highly fitted

You might have also thought how context plays a large role. In the case of apparel & shoes, context means:

  • where it will be worn
  • what the person will be doing
  • how the item will be seen
  • how the item will perform its job, etc.

The hill-climbing analogy is apt here. Rather than thinking of it as Cartesian, think of it as a continual expedition mapping out a mountain range without benefit of satellites or drones. You find yourself in the place you currently are, and you map out what you can see from there, choose a direction to go, map from this next place, choose a direction, map some more, and so on. Choices you make are based on the map, new data, and current priorities. (As an analogy, say you and your team are thirsty, so you’ll prioritize finding a stream over going to the top of a local hill, but if you and your team want to learn about snow cornices, up you must go.) All the dimensions and contexts are choices you make along the way.

For now, choose one purpose to focus on. Choose based on your current priorities.

Going back to the start of this essay, I have heard that a lot of people have data that feels un-insightful, or that just sits there in a pile because it’s hard to make sense of in relation to your needs as a team/org. Try this — try re-framing some of your existing data by purpose.

  • Framing research
  • Re-framing insights from past research
  • Creating support for peoples purposes
  • Categorizing data differently, based on purposes
  • Re-framing your strategy
  • Re-framing your metrics

So you spend a couple of weeks going through the raw data from past studies. Look at all the data and separate it into chunks that represent different purposes. Divide up one transcript into the five purposes, for example, it seems to be covering. Divide up another transcript into the two purposes that seem to be covered there, and so on. Then look to see which purposes go together and gather all the data and transcript chunks of that purpose together. Then you can do clearer analysis under each particular purpose. (With existing data, I imagine there will be a lot of orphan purposes with just one data-chunk, so those you’d have to set aside for later.)

You can show where the data is shallow or rich enough to work with. In the example above, you can then try to match the up richly described purposes to the data about returns. You’ll refine how to collect return data. And next …

The next step is to frame a new study based on a purpose and collect some rich data. Ask people what went through their mind the last time they had that purpose. Gather their thoughts at depth. (The thoughts at surface lend themselves to assumptions and unconscious bias on your part.)

Surface:

  • explanations (how, what, why it’s that way, etc.)
  • statements of fact
  • preferences & opinions
  • scene-setting (context)
  • generalizations
  • conjecture (about thinking that hasn’t happened yet)

Depth:

  • inner thinking
  • emotional reactions (and what those set off: more reactions, thinking, etc.)
  • guiding principles (little rules used to help make decisions)

This depth you collect will give you new perspective, framed by purpose, and open up more opportunities to support people.

With respect to usability, it can be so much more valuable if you let the participant go a little deeper with their thinking. Just observing what they do doesn’t tell you their inner struggle. Doing it contextually, using that participant’s purpose, also really gives better value. If you do these using Ethnio or some such tool, the person’s purpose is high on their mind, so it’s easy to ask what is going on inside (and go back to see where that came from, and forward to see where that goes).

But, you will want to frame the usability study based on purpose, otherwise you won’t have a way to connect the results back to your map in the mountains.

  • Framing research
  • Re-framing insights from past research
  • Creating support for peoples purposes
  • Categorizing data differently, based on purposes
  • Re-framing your strategy
  • Re-framing your metrics

This is where we can really start to see the weaknesses and gaps in how we are helping people accomplish their purposes. I’m currently looking for examples of this kind of metric, so please contact me if you have a story you can share.

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