Researchers are in the business of humans and since humans are strange and complex, it’s safe to assume that there will always be a need for a better understanding of our needs and behaviours. As researchers, we rely on our brain’s ability to create a process to decipher others and find an understanding that helps set functions and motions that benefit our surroundings. The process of reaching that kind of understanding has been ever-changing, especially in the last 15 years. With the appearance of more and more digital products alongside physical products, researchers have been given a wider set of tools & techniques that help to understand, not only claimed behaviour but the actual behaviour that explores the gap between what people say and what they do. For more than a decade, researchers have moved from service conducted primarily through phone questionnaires, towards doing more explorative research. It has become vital to track actual behaviour, to do remote-asynchronous research, and large scale quantitative analysis to pinpoint the success or failure of minor improvements. As the world continues to change in ways that we can’t predict how we respond becomes more important.
What ways can we, and should we, adapt to meet the needs of our discipline?
Is it possible to not only discover the needs of people but successfully predict them?
We could easily get lost in so many future-queries, but we decided to target the heart of the matter and start with something tangible. With 2020 closing in fast as we consider that last 15 years, we decided to jump ahead and time travel 15 years into the future with one main question: (that I’m sure you too have also asked in one way or another)
What will life be like in the future?
Last month, in Munich, we gathered a remote team of 10 researchers and analysts into a room on the top floor of a Munich downtown skyscraper and huddled around some imagined article headlines from 2035. We spent a good amount of time throwing around ideas based on how our daily routines might change in a world when smartphones have become redundant, or how we might plan our futures differently when genetic modification is a commodity. This was an inspiring start to our workshop that helped to unify the team together in the imagined year 2035 and put us all on the same train of thought.
For the second part of the workshop, we brought everyone into another room to act as a fictional team of a large corporation and provided them with a scenario:
Their “boss” comes raging in the door, distressed at a new law that had just passed where all jobs subject to human-error will be replaced with machines. The boss pleads to the team to make one last-ditch effort to come up with a “sales-pitch” by the end of the day to save the team!
After the boss is met with surprise and then enthusiastic nods, we posed another important question.
As researchers, what are we better at than a well-programmed machine?
The group was then split into smaller teams and our researchers went out to roam the city looking for answers. Two hours later everyone came together again with a ton of ideas of what they could see, hear, and feel that a machine could not. After being fully emerged in 2035 for hours, the team re-entered the year 2019 and broke it down, step-by-step, analyzing exactly what we all currently do on a day-to-day basis. We mapped our daily journeys and defined what tasks would stay the same and what will change when informed by 2035.
We found that while the general principle of putting the customer and user into the centre of our efforts might stay the same — the way we discover their needs, underlying emotions, implicit and explicit behaviours, as well as the delights and pains of the interaction they have with the products we design, will change. We realised the need to set our sites more on the future and be prepared to work with completely new mindsets and tools. Rather than only observing people using a product, we might isolate them in curated VR/AR environments where we can more accurately test situations. We may use more real-life data than lab experiments, working closely together with Researcher-Developers to help us to analyze large amounts of data quickly, together with environmental data allowing us to observe micro-interactions in more detail.
We strengthened our belief that humans can get more than just a “snapshot” of a person. Humans can focus on the big picture and can understand a situation better than a computer. Humans naturally and quickly triangulate a variety of data like hearing, seeing, smelling, and sensing what helps us understand another human. Just how someone looks or acts does not give the whole picture as a machine might interpret. Humans have the benefit of being able to zoom out of situations and see the unseen context e.g. cultural context or understand a short- or long-term political context that may drive underlying emotions like euphoria in individuals, or worry across whole nations. Humans have empathy. Computers have methods. Therefore we must base our work on the human experience at the same time as we embrace new technology. The team was saved!
What about data?
As data becomes the new oil and the amount of data about customers and users is expected to continue to multiply, the temptation is to assume that more data always equals better understanding. However, only usable insight is good insight and therefore for data to truly deliver better understanding, researchers’ need to strengthen their ability ‘to connect the dots’ and triangulate across a large variety of data sources. As we head into the future, findings and insights will continue to take centre stage, as well as business problem framing, therefore creating the boundaries for the team to work within. This can inform a team on how to utilise the findings for their business challenges.
So, what should we do today to prepare our discipline for tomorrow?
As researchers back from the future, we found that the most important thing is to challenge ourselves with every new project on new ways to collect data to create a meaningful understanding of our users. It will continue to be important, not just to welcome new technologies, but to have a curious and playful mindset towards them and start implementing them early into daily life, as well as being open to improve them. Furthermore, we should anticipate the challenges that large amounts of data bring for our users, and rather than set ourselves against fighting data regulations, we fight for them, defining and driving a code of data conduct.
Time travelling taught us that thinking ahead can be a valuable exercise for any team and that imagining what might be and being open to change can improve a teams’ process and bring insight and growth, as well as strength and inspiration. Visiting 2035 helped us create an open and curious mindset in our team. It will continue to help us to start implementing and embracing new technologies and future changes into our team’s daily life in 2020, and allow us to answer the question, “What can we do today to prepare ourselves and Kaiser X Labs for the future?”
Written by Andrea Mayer, Director Research & Analytics and John Robb, Senior Researcher & Service Designer, Kaiser X Labs, 2019
Editor: Jenny Schminke, Communication Manager, Kaiser X Labs