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Looking at different cultures to inspire innovation

11 Jan , 2016,
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We know that the successful adoption of new technologies can only be effective if we understand the precise needs, values and motivations of the user in their context. Implementing successful innovations is a delicate mix of matching the right technology with the behaviours of the user.

Understanding the behaviour of users (business people read: consumers) in different contexts is critical for companies looking to introduce their products into new markets. Yet it seems to me that there is a greater opportunity here than just understanding the behaviour of the user to sell them more products; that is – if we can understand why certain desirable behaviours are happening in certain contexts, we can transfer these behaviours to new contexts where undesirable behaviours are happening.

Transferring user behaviour between contexts is a complex science, however one that can yield significant innovative insights if applied correctly.

The following 7 guidelines are the result of extensive user-centred research I recently conducted with users in Brazil, India and the UK. The guidelines relate to transferring more sustainable laundry behaviours, however can be adapted to inspire innovations for other user behaviours.

1.    Understand the flow of the procedure from start to finish. Understand the various ‘touch points’ in the system.

Behaviours very rarely have one variable. If you are designing a new laundry system, how dirty, wet and clean clothes make their way around the house, who does the laundry, and when and where they do it will all significantly affect people’s behaviour and the subsequent resource implications.

2. Integrate the design of the procedure with the design of the spaces where the procedure occurs

Behaviours happen within specific spaces and the integration of the design with the space where the behaviour occurs is critical. In India and Brazil a utility area for laundry is common, keeping the process in one place and out of the way of the rest of the house. People who didn’t have this laundry area, such as those in the UK, tended to use the tumble dryer more to avoid draping wet clothes on furniture and radiators around the home. This is of particular importance for washing machine manufacturers, particularly when introducing products to new markets.

3. Adapt the design to suit the needs of the user

In the laundry example users either washed their clothes due to time or due to senses (smell, sight, touch). Understanding the exact needs of the user will help to create products that are more relevant and engaging.

Detergents that promote the ‘fresh’ sensory connotations may be applicable to users who wash based on smell, sight and touch, whilst detergents that promote fast action cleaning may be more appropriate for time-related users.

4. Give the user control to influence the resource use of a process

By taking all control away, the user feels they can do nothing to be environmentally conscious other than at the point of purchase — buying an ‘eco’ product. In reality, users who have control of a process and are guided towards desirable behaviours can substantially reduce their resource consumption by adapting the process to suit their specific needs.

In Brazil, users could control the amount of water in the machine, as well as being able to add garments halfway through a wash. In this way they could directly affect the water and energy consumption of the machine, unlike in the UK where they would just push a button on the homogenous white box.

5. Create a new emotional attachment between the user and the process

Laundry will always be a chore, however there may be other factors we can design in that can encourage behaving in a certain way. In the UK, some participants opted to line-dry clothes when possible because they preferred the fresh ‘line-dry’ smell of laundry aired naturally.

6. Let the user know and understand the various resource inputs and outputs of the process

In Brazil, top-loading washing machines are installed by the user. Water is added to the machine by turning the tap on and watching the machine fill up, whilst waste water is released via the sink. Users understand the amount of water they are putting into the machine and can see the waste that is coming out, meaning they have a direct sensory feedback of the resource consumption of the machine. In the UK, machines are installed into the plumbing system of the house and the resource inputs and outputs cannot be visualised by the user.

As an alternative example, think of Dyson vacuum cleaners that have a clear section that collects the dust, showing users how effective the product is at cleaning.

7. Be clear about the operation of the process. Give the correct and relevant information at the right time, in the right place.

Keeping users informed can be an effective way of reducing resource-intensive behaviours, however tread carefully: Overloading users with irrelevant and unnecessary information can be just as bad as not giving them any information at all! In all regions studied users struggled with adding detergent as they were not sure where exactly to put it or if the guidance marks for correct dosage were for powder or liquid detergents, extra concentrated detergents or other products such as conditioners or bleaches.

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