How to Keep Innovation Human-Centered in an Increasingly Virtual Reality
By Lisa McFarland, Account Strategist & Patricia Salamone, Account Strategist, Gongos, Inc.
In the face of epic disruption, brands are caught between two forces. They must increase their commitment to innovation—a process that should begin and end with the human experience. However, being physically alongside humans is extraordinarily challenging in today’s world, if not prohibited. This begs the question: How should organizations pivot to keep innovation initiatives human-centered in the absence of in-person interaction?
Looking through the lens of empathy and ideation—two critical tenets of human-centered design—may provide the best answer. After all, the general consensus has been that to build empathy for your audience you must observe what they do, necessitating their presence. And ideation typically manifests as harmonious, face-to-face co-creation fueled by high engagement and iterative dialogue.
On its surface, the imperative to transform these legacy encounters into virtual experiences seems in opposition to deeply understanding consumer needs and optimally delivering on them. However, as we will illustrate, pivoting to facilitate empathy and ideation engagements from a distance resulted in the unearthing of new insights and ideas that proved valuable, if not unprecedented, for two global brands.
Two Case Studies: Surfacing Concerns
A maker of health and beauty products sought to better understand what consumers needed and wanted prior to developing a new line with organic, plant-based ingredients. Just as research design commenced, the COVID-19 pandemic presented itself, requiring a shift from in-person to virtual empathy-building that would entail observation of beauty routines and in-depth interviews.
Within the same span of time, a pet care brand aimed to transition more pet owners to its smaller cat food portion. Thus, an ideation session on how to drive greater excitement around the product was planned with the aim of four scalable ideas. And similarly, when the pandemic presented itself, face-to-face co-creation was forced online.
While doubling down on the digital landscape would be a prerequisite to the continuation of innovation for both brands, key concerns surfaced around whether depth, quality, engagement, energy, and connection would be compromised in engaging from afar. Would health and beauty consumers share less intimate skincare details and be more easily distracted by household happenings? Would a virtual setting impair the focus, creativity, and strength of ideas for marketing to pet owners?
Transforming Misgivings into Myths
In the end, a human-centered approach to pivoting from in-person to online innovation transformed five perceived challenges into myths. By illustrating the initial apprehensions against adjustments made and successes accomplished, we hope to highlight how you too can help your organization overcome the ever-present obstacles to virtually pursuing innovation.
- Myth #1: Less in-depth insights. As it turned out, in facilitating research engagements from afar with health and beauty consumers, the insights gained were, in many ways, deeper than in person. Fundamentally, exploring individuals’ cosmetic procedures without physically infringing upon their natural environments fostered more intimate conversations. In addition, flexing participation expectations elevated vulnerability and authenticity. By empowering individuals to complete activities creatively, iteratively and in real time, we were able to probe, inspire additional layers of sharing, and multiply the volume of learnings typically gleaned.
- Myth #2: Lower-quality ideas. In ideating to increase pet food adoption, aligning up front and making the most of immediate deliverables fueled ideas as promising, if not more, than could be achieved on site. Beginning with an exercise in defining a winning idea and using that as the compass for co-creation fostered high-quality concepts by way of focus. To further elevate the value of ideation efforts, digital deliverables from sessions, including recordings, were leveraged to pitch ideas to leadership. In turn, leaders consulted on how to effectively connect them to the business, existing data, and complementary initiatives.
- Myth #3: Shorter attention spans. While establishing empathy for health and beauty consumers, impactful engagement was driven by embracing distractions and varying the level of effort required across activities. For example, observing a mother applying lotion with her toddler at her hip—a natural distraction—spurred ideas for a serum with a spill-proof design. What’s more, constructing each activity uniquely (e.g., writing of product reviews, video recording of routines, sharing of pictures as aspirations, relaxed structure of interviews) left room for differing degrees of interruption and kept participation interesting.
- Myth #4: Decreased energy. Pre-planning is paramount in creating the right energy for co-creation. In virtually ideating with partners in pet care, scheduling bite-sized sessions and carefully selecting stimuli proved powerful. Dissecting what would have been one lengthy meeting into five brief engagements—often impractical in person, considering venue costs and other logistics—fueled sharper in-the-moment engagement and in-between marinating. And in leveraging technology to vary the stimuli throughout sessions, waning energy levels were avoided. For example, slides were presented to encourage listening, a panel view of everyone’s faces was shown to drive conversation, and video was shared to immerse team members in the mindset of consumers.
- Myth #5: Reduction of relationship building. When it comes to truly human-centered innovation, intimacy can’t be overlooked. Two helpful strategies for building a sense of closeness while far apart were gleaned from our empathy and ideation engagements. First, our health and beauty research offered the advantage of more time to make connections—time that travel and other aspects of in-person interactions take away from. Utilizing the extra time available inevitably heightened familiarity, trust, and comfort with participants. Second, during pet care ideation sessions, “non-business” discussion proved beneficial by creating comradery and optimizing collaboration. Sharing personal stories, encouraging laughter, integrating quizzes, and awarding points for participation were some of the many ways the softer side was accounted for.
In a world where change is as pervasive and powerful as it’s ever been, the saying “What got us here won’t get us there” rings especially true. Yet as a recent study by McKinsey & Company highlights, while “through-crisis innovators” outperform other companies, most organizations decrease their commitment to innovation in moments of disruption.
Beyond creating competitive advantage, innovation is critical to business sustainability and the path to it needs perpetual repaving. Truly customer-centric companies will rise to this ever-present opportunity, modifying their approaches to innovation in ways that remain human-centered while meeting the given moment. At this point in time, pivoting to more virtual interactions is one of the most necessary adjustments that can be made. And when done right, it introduces unique value that will serve to strengthen innovation into the future.
As published in Quirk’s Media.