Why You Need to Crawl Beneath Your Customer's Table

And Other Thought-Provoking Insights From the Idea Conference

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Sit under the kitchen table. That was by far the best advice handed out at the Idea Conference -- a highly successful (even by objective standards, not just my biased ones) joint venture Ad Age and Creativity held earlier this month in New York.

Speakers at the Idea Conference emphasized the importance of truly seeing and experiencing the world as specific kinds of consumers do. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

From the Conference:

Video Clips From The Idea Conference
Philip Rosedale, David Jones, Steven Heyer, David Rockwell, David Verklin and Alex Bogusky
18 Big Ideas From the Idea Conference
From Some of the Industry's Most Dynamic Minds
Euro's David Jones Tells Idea Conference to Take Back Creativity From Consumers
MSLO Fortifies Quality, Builds Underdog Status

Ideo's Paul Bennett
The directive came from Ideo's brilliant and personable chief creative, Paul Bennett, who spun a charming tale of how one of the company's designers was inspired to create a storage system for kids after spending time crouched under a table. The result: a very cute device that attaches to the underside of a table and allows a child to easily pluck out a dangling stuffed bunny or bear. The product shot was met with a collective "awwww" from an audience of jaded marketing pros.

The point is that we need to see the world through the eyes of the people we are creating products for. Children have a very different relationship to furniture than adults, crawling over and under it in search of adventure. Only by following them around and putting himself literally in their place was Ideo's designer able to see the world through their eyes.

A painfully clear fact
It's another one of those concepts that seems so "duh" in retrospect but that too often eludes us in daily life. Check out any catalog or store shelf, and it's painfully clear how many existing products are testaments to their creators' egos, designed with no one else at all in mind.

Today's word of the day is empathy, defined by Merriam-Webster as "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings or thoughts of another." (If you're one of those people who don't get the difference between empathy and sympathy, don't expect me to clear it up here. What do you think this is, a classroom?)

Bennett's point was as refreshing as one of those periodic reminders that "consumer" is an awful word to describe people who don't define themselves primarily by their consumption habits. They're people, people. Human beings.

New age of hotel design
Architect David Rockwell and Starwood's feisty CEO Steve Heyer also preached the gospel of empathy, emphasizing that hotel design needs to start with an understanding of how a typical guest might spend her day, what needs and wants she may have beyond a comfy bed, and how a hotel can meet them. By understanding, for example, that some business travelers want to be left alone but not feel lonely, some Starwood spots were inspired to introduce communal seating at restaurants or create lobby libraries.

Empathy can also be a tool for brand managers frightened by consumer empowerment. If you create products and experiences by first walking a mile in your customers' shoes, they may feel more ownership from the outset and have less reason to tinker with your brand's positioning. That's why Starwood is testing its planned Aloft chain in Second Life before opening in the real world, allowing virtual visitors to offer advice on room layouts and which way the bathroom doors swing open.

As Bennett said, "The consumer is part of the organization. You have to embrace this notion."

View through a patient's eyes
He underscored that point by showing clips of a six-and-a-half-minute film created by Ideo for a hospital seeking to improve the patient experience. The movie is a maddeningly unblinking look at a water-stained foam drop ceiling and fluorescent lights: the view from a hospital bed. After Ideo showed it, the hospital imprinted patterns on ceiling panels, put up wallpaper and installed rearview mirrors on gurneys, all to distract eyes and ease anxious minds.

Simple, right? Obvious? Sure, but when was the last time you climbed under the table? Do it tonight. You may be surprised at what you discover.
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