Knowing your audience has long been touted as a key to success. Yet time after time, we find ourselves trying to speak with too broad of an audience, or making a product that tries to please everyone. In the end, it pleases no one.
There is no better example of knowing your audience than Fred Armisen.
Fred Armisen created Portlandia with Carrie Brownstein. This is a show rooted in making light of the quirky and free culture in Portland, Oregon.
Fred Armisen created Documentary Now with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. This is a show that parodies the nuances of various documentary styles and tropes.
Fred Armisen recently released a Netflix comedy special, Standup for Drummers. This is a whole comedy special with inside jokes aimed at, you guessed it… drummers.
It’s not that Armisen finds a narrow audience that is desperate for attention. It’s that he finds HIS audience. The projects Armisen chooses to pursue are things that interest him; places he loves, skills he admires, and experiences he shares. Watching him interact with his narrow audience is the realest kind of real. And you can feel it.
Because his real audience is himself.
“There’s something that I can’t describe about the city [Portland] that I really love – just physically – how it feels to walk around there, and have coffee there. Also, the way that it’s a little overcast sometimes. Something about Portland just really resonated with me.” – Fred Armisen
You don’t have to be part of the inner circle. I encourage you to watch Standup for Drummers. Even though you may not get every joke (I didn’t), you get lured in by Armisen’s passion, his prose, his charisma talking about the funny-to-him aspects of something he appreciates.
But what I really want to challenge you with is this.
Don’t try to make the next extremely profitable thing. Don’t attempt to create the next disruptive to the industry thing. Don’t go make the thing you think everyone will want.
Make something that is important to you, on the deep down soul level. Make something about another thing you love. And then… share it with people just like you.
Your realness. Your soul. Your connection with the topic and the people who share the same connection. It will all shine.
Growing up, I was a fan of the San Diego Padres baseball team. Well, specifically Tony Gwynn, but the Padres came with him. There have been years where I watched them trade away quality top talent, in hopes of landing a large quantity of moderate talent. Why have one 5-star player, when you can have three 2-stars? So when a team I loved had replaced every player at every position with new players, were they still “my team”?
This is the crux of the thought experiment raised by Plutarch. Not Hunger Games Plutarch; I’m talking about ancient Greek Plutarch. He wanted to know when the Ship of Theseus stopped being the Ship of Theseus, if it was replaced with replica parts, one by one. You can check out a discussion at Brain Pickings.
At least make sure you watch the video in the Brain Pickings article, which can also be found here: Who Am I?
Humankind asks “Who am I?” At least since we’ve been able to think these types of thoughts. There may be some earlier humans who never really contemplated their place in the universe, or if Oog and Thag talk about them when they’re not in the cave… I digress.
Both the video and article are fantastic for explaining what is at the heart of the conundrum. However, I want to know what’s at the heart of the human. This leads me to a different question.
Why do we ask “Who am I”?
“Who am I?” gets at identity. I want to understand why we question it. I am going to spoil the end of this post and tell you right now, I don’t know. But it does generate interesting questions that need to be explored. Surely, some folks have explored one or more of these. I want to to talk to these folks. If you are one of these folks, let me know! I want to talk to you.
Is who we are different from time to time? From place to place? From situation to situation?
Is “Who am I?” even what we want to know?
Should it be “Am I being who I want to be?”
Should it be “What’s my place in the universe?”
Should it be “Who do others think I am?”
Do people with extreme levels of self-confidence ask “Who am I?” (extreme = really high AND really low)
Does “wearing many hats” fragment our identity?
Why can’t we be the same person and keep our identity whole?
Are the forces on the need for “many hats” external or internal?
Does finding an answer to “Who am I?” solve anything?
One Last Thing Before You Go
This search for identity generates a new-to-me connection. Our inability to satisfyingly answer “Who am I?” leads to a void that “things” have been able to fill. If I buy a cat, I open the door to becoming a cat person. If I buy activewear from Nike, I showcase my athletic identity. Heck, you can’t even properly root for the Padres without buying some team gear. Maybe that’s part of how we cement part of our identity answer.
“Who am I? Well, I got all these Padres hats and shirts, so clearly I’m a Padres fan.”
It feels like those are the easy answers to what is supposed to be a deep and soul-searching question. “Who am I?” sounds like a status report on the path to the ideal you want to achieve.
Loading the family into our Swagger Wagon (ok… minivan) I asked my oldest son to help my youngest son buckle his seat belt. I want to recognize as many “I can do it myself” statements as I can, but not when were in a hurry. That’s when I lean on the buckling-up experts to lend a guiding hand. My oldest quickly assesses what I asked him to accomplish, grabs the buckle, and promptly drives it home with the satisfying click that means “all safe and secure”. However in doing so, my oldest had pulled the strap across the face of my youngest.
But, as they say in the American South, bless his heart. He did precisely what I had asked. “Please help your brother buckle up.”
Task?buckle brother’s seat belt
Brother’s feelings?not in the scope for this mission
I say this not because I want to tell a cute story about how goal-driven my oldest can be sometimes, or about how my youngest has the resilience and facial elasticity to bounce back from this. I want to highlight that this is a trap we all fall into as innovators.
We listen to our clients, our customers, our primary personas because we’re good innovators. That’s what we do. However sometimes when the customer says “I want a product that does X”, we head right into the prototype factory and make Product X. And then we are flabbergasted when Product X fails to capture the market.
What we need is more empathy.
Empathy is all about understanding the customer’s worldview. We can gain a better understanding by observing the customer in the situation and taking note of what they say, think, do, and feel. Check out Stanford d.school’s empathy map for more detail.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford (?)
Empathy keeps us from taking the customer at their word and let’s us get at the heart of the problem. Like the quote attributed to Henry Ford suggests, we don’t want to give them faster horses. We want to understand WHY customers say they need faster horses. What job is the horse doing and why does it need to happen faster? The more we drill down into the empathetic questioning, the more we can find the true cause of the problem and actual working solutions.
My oldest is a very caring person, but in this case he simply listened to what I said, and made that happen. He did not think “Why is dad asking me to buckle him in this time?” nor “What’s going on with my brother that I need to help?” He did not have to buckle innovatively. I wasn’t looking for a new way to secure my children in their car seats. However, with a little more empathy he would have noticed that an immediate solution was not going to be the most optimal.
It is not innovative to have a customer ask for a faster horse and just deliver a faster horse. What customers say is only one-fourth of the puzzle. In the Value Proposition Design framework, Innovation is when a customer asks for a faster horse, you dive into what jobs the horse was doing, what pain points the speed of the horse was causing, and what opportunities for gains existed in the current horse-driven model. Innovation is disrupting or challenging the flow of the current model with a solution that gets at the root of the pain felt by the customer. Delivering what a customer wants is not the job of the innovator. Our job is to find what they need.
Innovation ignites when empathy is your spark.
What does your customer say they want?
Identify the pain points that are leading them to voice this need.
Find an opportunity to observe your customer and take notes.
I enjoy a good scary movie from time to time and zombies are everywhere. Zombies cause a load of difficult situations for folks. Imagine that you’ve just pronounced Steve* deceased, when all of a sudden, Steve sits upright and starts expressing his sudden love of brains. “My bad everyone” you might say sheepishly “I could’ve sworn he was a goner.” Then everyone rolls their eyes at you and it just gets super awkward. If only you had done a little more checking before, you might have a plan for when your “deceased” diagnosis failed.
Whether it is zombies or innovation prototyping, you need to do a pre-mortem.
The whole point of building prototypes and testing them with customers, is to see if you solution succeeds or fails. Yet we often wait to get our “failure folder” before we start thinking of why it went wrong and where the pivot opportunities are. There is no need to wait to make decisions when you conduct a pre-mortem.
Pre-mortems occur after your prototype is ready for testing, but before you do any actual testing. They allow you to take a glance at your work from a different angle. To this point, you’ve spent your brain power finding ways to get the prototype to work, how to demonstrate your hypothesis, and how to collect the data points you know are important. A pre-mortem let’s you stop those thoughts, and think “How can this prototype fail during the test and what am I going to do after it does?”
Pre-mortems focus your thoughts of failure to a single test of your prototype, not your end product. By keeping the scope of your vision on just one test, it is way less scary to envision the many ways it can fail.
A simple pre-mortem can be done by yourself as long as your prototype is in its testable state. However, it is very beneficial to have other people look at your prototype during the pre-mortem. These people are not your testers and they may not even be your target customer. Your pre-mortem pals are chosen because they have candor (which means that if it stinks, they’ll tell you… to your face… with no hesitation.) This group isn’t hyper-critical necessarily. They want to see you succeed, so they won’t inflate your hope with false niceties to avoid hurting your feelings.
If a person will tell you that your shirt is ugly, sign them up for your pre-mortem crew.
Executing a pre-mortem can be an informal process, however it is possible to ruin the validity of the pre-mortem. Be cautious to not “lead your witness” by building a worldview where your prototype is the only solution. You are best off not even telling them what your solution is or how it works. It is natural for us to go into pitch mode when we have someone looking at our prototype, but you wont be at the point of sale for your product every time. They will have to use your product by themselves, and “get it”.
Pre-mortems allow you to test your prototype, without any guiding, to see if it stands up on its own. A pre-mortem is like the first few shaky steps of a gangly giraffe; it looks like it will topple at any moment and you want to run over and prop it up, but you shouldn’t interfere if you want it to be running across the savannah someday.
To avoid the “let me just show you how this amazing product works” scenario, I’ve crafted a guide for you. This guide can be used whether you are “pre-morteming” by yourself, or with your group (the ones who are ok saying they don’t like your haircut).
Refer to your customer profile so that you or your group can get in the customer’s mindset. Make sure to explain the pain points you identified for the primary persona.
Let your pre-mortem pals interact with your prototype while you sit silently.
Observe and document how they interact.
If you are doing this step virtually, have them write down or say everything that comes to mind including “Ok now I am clicking this button because it looks like it needs to be clicked… and now I am going to do this other thing”.
Pretend to be in the future and your prototype has just failed in its most recent test.
NO REASON FOR FAILURE IS TO BE GIVEN YET.
Have everyone participating in the pre-mortem write down how your prototype failed. Aim for lists with multiple failure options.
Share and evaluate the responses. If you are doing this in a group, one person may see the prototype failing one way, and that may spark discussion on other ways no one had thought of.
I will warn you that this is a tough conversation to be a part of. However, you must encourage the dialogue. “This is great! Tell me more about how my prototype will fall on it’s face during the test!”
Take your list of possible failures and start thinking of ways you can pivot.
Take no action now, unless a failure is eminent and will ruin the test. If that’s the case, you have to fix that! Otherwise, the list of failures is not guaranteed. Keep in mind that your pre-mortem pals may not be representative of your testing group.
If you are pre-morteming by yourself, you can skip steps 2 and 3. You should probably also skip any of the open discussion parts unless you want to talk to yourself out loud. And that’s totally fine if you do.
I enjoy pre-mortems. They teach you in so many ways. They serve as mini tests before your real test. They open up your eyes so that you can see your prototype from the customer’s point of view. They help you identify ways your prototype will stumble during the test. They let you plan pivots ahead of time, that you can act on later if your prototype does actually fail. I don’t dread testing prototypes because I know if it fails, I have a plan or two ready to go.
I challenge you to be vulnerable and find some folks who will look at your prototype with a critical eye. Plan for failure now instead of later.
*You may or may not know a Steve but I assure you that the names have been made up and any likeness to someone you know is purely coincidental.
My great friend, Joseph Greaser, posted an excellent write up about understanding your audience. Especially when it comes to innovation. You can read all about his case study and data that illustrate this point clearly. Read his post, follow his blog, and then come right back.
The next time you are stuck needing some small talk, here’s a little trivia for you. The average elevation for the state of Arizona is roughly 4,100 feet. Yet that fact covers up a big hole in the data. Actually, one of the biggest holes. The Grand Canyon is also in Arizona. Its elevation bottoms out at only 70 feet in the canyon. Now you’re saying “Of course it glosses over the Grand Canyon. That’s what an average does. It smoothes over the really high peaks and really low valleys.”
So then why do we use the average when trying to understand your customer?
The whole point of understanding your customer is to understand their pain points, their usage, and what innovations they would gain from. But if we keep just looking at average data to “get a feel” for how the whole group is using your prototype, then you could be missing grand canyons of opportunity.
Let’s change the lens for this. Imagine you are a teacher and you are looking at the grades for your students at the end of the year. Half of your class ended with a grade of 100%, the other half ended with a grade of 50%. Would you just average them out and say that your class earned a 75%? You wouldn’t unless you wanted to be looking for a different line of work in the fall. No, you would see two distinct “user-groups” in your classroom. Regardless of grade, both user-groups need your attention.
You would work hard to understand why it wasn’t working for your 50-percenters. You would try new things, different strategies, and observe to identify their pain points. Even your 100-percenters need you. You need to observe them as well to find what is working, try to push them to new territory, and give them some challenges. You would be doing so much to understand your students.
Similarly in innovation, we must journey to the bottom of data canyon to understand our customers.
Let’s look at what the average leads us to. Based on analytics, a website was tracking an average of 5 minutes per session duration. Remembering what we can about averages from freshman year, we imagine the graph to look like this beauty.
Yet, through the magic of mathematics, this graph is also equally likely and just as valid.
Whoa! Talk about two completely different use cases for this website. Let’s put the graphs together to get the whole picture.
Only in some cases would innovating for the average actually provide some benefit to our customers. There are other valid cases where innovating for the average wouldn’t benefit the customers at all. Talk about wasted time, development, and effort.
Another great example of this is to look at the Diffusion of Innovations curve. Ignore the extremes for now and look at what aiming for the average would get you. You would be nestled between the Early Majority and the Late Majority of customers. Your innovation would be targeting a user-group that is torn between being scared and skeptical of change. They would be wanting to get something out of your innovation, but at the same time they just don’t want to get left behind.
So what is a good innovator to do? One thing that we are always fond of is looking for micro-patterns instead of macro-solutions. Macro-solutions are the golden bullet, “this will work for everyone” type of product. These have their benefit in some instances but not when you are trying to understand your customers. Remember that averages smooth out the mountains and canyons that customers experience. Macro-solutions need averages to survive.
Micro-patterns help shed light on your customer personas. Go back to the classroom scenario, even though it is simplistic. Just looking at the grade data beyond the average shows us that their are at least two distinct customer personas in the class. It is ok to have multiple personas as long as you understand that they have different needs and desires from your product. The students with 100% grades have different demands from the classroom than the students with 50% grades. Your job as the innovator is to decide which group to innovate for.
The more complex your data is, the more micro-patterns there may be… and this is ok. Complex is neither good nor bad, it just is. As an innovator you aren’t here to judge numbers, you’re here to listen to their stories. And stories can be as deep as the Grand Canyon sometimes, but you have to make the trek to the bottom via mule to truly understand the customers there. Don’t let the shiny averages distract you with their homogenous targets for innovation.
Challenge: Take a look at some data for your innovation.
What are some of the shiny, yet deceiving, averages that exist?
Dive deeper into your data. Are your averages glossing over some of the customer stories?
Try to identify the different, distinct user-groups for your innovation. List their pain points.