Science of People Centric Business

Product Management

At its core, all business is about making bets on people - Christian Madsbjerg & Mikkel B. Rasmussen 


Innovation needs to backed by influence every step of the way if your organizational purpose includes impact creation on the agenda. A lot of occasions product designers are overwhelmed by the nitty gritty of bringing new products to the market that they lose sight of their overall aspirations for impact.


Innovation, in and of itself, cannot bring in successful customer acquisition. It requires effective communication to reach the right audience pool who will eventually become your customers. A top reason for product failures can be attributed to a lack of audience or market. Thought leaders first and foremost need to master the art of influencing people.


Successful innovation is about influencing a lot of people, different categories of people. the jerks. the naysayers, the indifferent, the exuberant, the ignorant and the clueless. People inside your circle and outside of it. People within your spectrum of data and outside of it. Innovation requires thinking that encompasses every reference point.


While it is true that technology progression has helped teams use data driven, analytical approach to finding the right customer profile, they are of little help in the early days when there is no data.Instead of depending on data crunching, product designers must explore alternatives. Gaining access to both the big picture and finer detail requires diligent implementation of the exploratory mindset. Asking a lot of questions as below would be a good starting point.


Who are the potential buyers and users?

Who can’t live without it?

How does the product benefit the customer? 

What will be the overall experience of using the product ?

What experience does the consumer want?

Does this product require behavior change for the customer ?

What metrics should be considered in determining the product’s success?

How do we reach those people? 

How expensive would be to reach these potentials ?


Empowering designers to think more universally about the entire product experience will naturally follow. Achieving greater levels of customer intimacy is only possible with a heightened sensitivity to their shared beliefs and responsiveness to their expectations. Removing preconceptions about people and capability to see patterns of behavior in others is paramount to unbundle complex human behavior.


While the exact experience of each individual may vary, the judgement, the reaction and action that we as individuals undertake has a lot of similarities. Grasping people holistically in their natural habitats and in the context of their daily lives is important to be objective. Given that we are not mind readers, we need other tools to explore the cultural and societal forces that shape their choices and behaviors.


Ethnography is all about systematic study of people. A vital tool that gives executives a real-world understanding of people’s preferences, motivations and purpose. A social science technique used by anthropologists and sociologists widely to explain the context of people in its entirety and empathetically. Rests its case on a fundamental hypothesis that users interact dynamically with their environment  depending on multiple social dimensions and situations.


It mandates that we must first discover what people actually do, the reasons given for doing it and how they feel while doing it before we can interpret their actions and behaviors based on our own experiences. A means to know the unstated expectations, unmet needs, underutilized features, disappointing experiences, suppressed desires of users.  A methodology to extend our observation beyond what they do to why they do. 


Ethnographers believe that the world of the user is an integrated whole with constantly changing attitudes and preferences. They Leverage grasp of physiology and psychology to decode the thought process with a purpose is to remove bias in decisions.


In Primary Ethnography, ethnographers embed themselves in the worlds of the people they study. In the pursuit of empathy, they invest time and effort to follow the subject to gain strategic insights into multiple dimensions of identity, lifestyle and meaning. They navigate the inner dimensions of a person's reality and find the connection between their psychology, affiliations and culture so as to detect the variance between words and deeds.


Secondary method attempts to develop empathy via mediated information such as Social Media Analysis, Magazines, radio, television, journals, newsletters, and newspapers. 


Ethnographic research results in a wide variety of outcomes top of which could lead to the construction of  behavioral personas, value expectations and brand perceptions. A treasure trove of information that opens up the unknown unknowns which can lead to the validation of assumptions and bias.


Constructing an effective story about the individual and groups are essential to finding relevance for innovation in the marketplace. Best stories emerge when the storyteller has experienced first hand the troubles in a given context. Unearthing humane aspects of situations requires a safe space of openness and sharing among participants


Defining hypotheses that can be verified and tested using the data collected is necessary for designers to decipher the emotional choices, logical justifications and their overall meaning to the subjects and stakeholders.

Ethnography is about telling a credible, rigorous and authentic story - David M. Fetterman


It’s only natural for teams building the wrong products to struggle and fail in the market. Far too often, companies have failed in spite of building great products that actually solve real problems of the user. While the former can be attributed to poor discovery the later is purely a function of execution that has failed in getting a significant amount of  users to realize the value.


In the journey from awareness to action, value crafted passes through several decision filters namely relevance, credibility, usability, desirability and persuasion. At each stage, potential customers face a dilemma  whether the experience is worth continuing. According to BJ Fogg’s the decision criteria is overwhelming tilted in favor or against the choice based on six core emotions namely pleasure, pain, hope, fear, acceptance and rejection.


With them at the centre of shared human experiences, the stakeholders at the helm like anthropologists, product designers, product managers must imbibe everything in their work to tickle these central impulses. when combined with beliefs, values, purpose, they create emotional, social and physical sentiments that tilt the compass in favor or against the decisions. 


Hence, it is important to have a stranglehold on the starting point. Grasping Psychology helps us make more effective, more fun and more engaging design choices every step of the way. Couple it with the know how of human cognition we have a complete perspective how our minds operate under situations of uncertainty. 


Fact of the matter is that the message should be communicated in a way that penetrates the defenses of attention, cognition and decision. Overcoming these natural barriers requires that we tap into other natural instincts hardwired into our psyche. Top of which is our  subconscious goal to preserve energy. 


Like a smart battery, Human brains are structured to optimize cognitive load and conserve energy. Scientific studies have revealed that we humans invest enormous amounts of energy on building shortcuts in our memory to avoid making conscious and deliberate decisions. These shortcuts are called cognitive biases. Leveraging this hack we can channel particular and favorable messaging to resonate without much effort.


Underlying Idea is to frame contextual information in easy to process cues in order to overcome inhibitions of rational objectivity in decision making. In other words, we are accelerating human thought process by presenting information in the form of pre-existing beliefs namely desires, habits, triggers etc. 


cognitive bias is a double edged sword. Leveraging it in product design and communication requires a strong ethical compass. In Spite of it’s flip side more and more of the design community is exploring this through a systematic approach called persuasive design. All of this is done to remove the demotivators of action.   


It’s complicated theory. No study exists that proves beyond doubt the interplay of human cognition, motivation and behavior. However, there is a lot of research including one by nobel laureate Daniel Kanhmen that give credence to the multimodal thinking of human brains and their consequential impact on behavior.


Our brains can operate in two modes. By default, we are very intuitive and rely upon habits to circumvent to and fro signalling and speed up choices,When we make deliberate selections there is a lot of weighing the pros and cons. Leveraging faculties of learning, experiences, needs to finalize choices.


Irrespective of the modes, we human beings operating like a system, integrated to grasp situations, defend interests, guide consumption and facilitate expression. This is manifested in our many idiosyncrasies. We are global yet tribal, unique yet common, rational yet emotional and predictable yet unpredictable.


Piecing together multi dimensional research we can say that we humans are predictably irrational. Behavioral Psychology is the study of human behavior, essentially their actions and reactions in a given context. From that perspective, We as humans are hardwired to react to situations.


Indeed, the value is in observing people and their actions, rather than depending purely on their self reporting. Teams that have the luxury of resources can invest in both the approaches to unearth valuable anecdotes. Processing such anecdotes across different subjects might yield a cluster of powerful situations of struggle.


Great ethnographers spot contradictions between what people say they do and what they actually do. Amalgamations of such dilemmas gives teams the power to know the why and what of customer needs. Designing intuitive incentives that align with their story makes it easy for customers to react favorably to a solution.

The key is, no matter what story you tell, make your buyer the hero - Chris Brogan


Ethnography as a research method explores a vast canvas including cultural practices, rituals, consumer behaviour, routines to name a few. It’s time consuming, confusing and sometimes even frustrating for those teams that have depended on industry experts or  market knowledge to identify new opportunities. Empowers researchers to synthesize people’s signals in unanticipated ways via the investigation of verbal and non verbal behavior. 


For those teams that recognize the complexity of human behavior, it is a boon to figure out grades of human despair. An experienced ethnographer captures the spirit of the moment and validates it with the nuances of environment and conversations. Determining the problem solution propensity is essential to pick opportunities worth pursuing.


Selecting the next big opportunity results from having clarity of what matters most to the customer stakeholders. As an outcome of this exercise, we end up with a plethora of hypotheses about customers pains. Challenge is to ensure an open mind detached from  preconceived biases. If not, we will have personal judgement masqueraded as opportunities. 


All that we have witnessed is potential customers rational and emotional disposition towards a particular subject. Reality is that different customers might have different intensity of drives to pursue these subjects to their logical conclusion. Categorizing these facts into needs, grasping the urgency of closure requires inquisition into individual mindsets.


Point is while the ethnographers and designers are exploring the collective need, the stakeholder is only worried about his particular situation. Even a single attribute of their personality can potentially derail any and all common ground being sought. idiosyncratic alignment is no easy task in research to opportunity cycle.


A challenge in front of product design teams is to arrive at that common denominator that is very important for significant customer stakeholders yet financially attractive as an opportunity for the business. Arriving at this win win requires being able to interpret the webs of meaning captured as a keen observer while participating in the life setting of their subjects.   


Being creatively curious to the conflicts and bottlenecks of the specific subject’s environment is essential to formulate an overall empathetic story. Unfortunately, a lot of folks escape from self referential bias only to get bogged down by opportunity seeking bias. Always scanning the environment for design interventions as you are observing and sensing is a recipe for disaster. 


Getting to the nuances of people's lives requires a sixth sense that is able to read emotions invisible to the naked eye. Attaching those emotions to observable aspirations, personality traits and behavior is essential to develop empathy for the lives of people we design for.

While its natural to look for problems to solve, unmet needs to satisfy and ideas to improve the life of the subjects, highly experienced ethnographers are conscious learners of implicit meanings that can be leveraged to resonate at the subconscious levels. 


Real meaningful outcomes from ethnography is only possible when the subjects trust the observers so much so that they open up about things that are meaningful to them. They are motivated enough to share interesting bits and pieces of lives that they consider valuable. Flushing out scenario after scenario that the customer needs help with is essential to empower them with the right tools for atonement. 


Drawing inspiration from the mess in their lives to design comprehensive sketch of people involved rather than the problem is the holy grail of successful ethnography.

People’s behavior makes sense if you think of it in terms of their goals, needs and motives - Thomas Mann


Effective product designers observe, discuss and interpret behavior so that they can leverage existing behavior in product design or work out a mechanism to change behavior. Irrespective of opportunity at hand, product teams must grasp human behavior. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, there exists several models to explain human behavior. 


A popular model is the one that is postulated by BJ Fogg. He argues that human behavior is a  function of many variables. All of them can be grouped into three terms namely motivation, ability and trigger. Further, each of these variables can be elaborated. Specifically, motivation is studied by different scholars who have espoused the different angles and perspectives within motivation.


With due respect to all those theories, motivation is simply a function of need and drive. This is known as the homeostatic model. While a lot of studies focus on food and sex needs, they are off topic to our discussion. We are more interested in studying the need for services, products and experiences. With this view, we hope to grasp where the prospect or subject is operating in the need - drive spectrum.


We further seek to clarify this grasp by expanding the categorization of these terms. Need can be categorized into unworkable, unavoidable, urgent and underserved. Drive can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic drive can be about purpose, instincts, passion, cause while extrinsic drive can emerge from compulsion, ownership, performance and incentive. 


Different types of stakeholders operate at different intersections of need and drive. Smart product design teams are adept at exploring these nuances as part of their ethnographic studies. In fact, a wise product team designs keeping in view a particular configuration. Tickling the right sensibilities at the right time is essential to bring out predictable behaviour across need groups.


In B2B environments, individual competencies are known by the  roles assigned, jobs allocated, process involved, activity accountable for,  task ownership, leadership positions, risk profiles, group dynamics, resource availability, organizational visibility, team culture, demonstrated skills, recognised capability, vast experiences, binding purpose and work autonomy etc.


A stakeholders ability rests on the foundations of these independent and dependent variables. Having a clear idea of the subjects competencies is very important aspect of behavioral synthesis. Modelling appropriate alignment of subjects with their observed ability to exhibit a behavior is important to assess the learning curve required to introduce behaviour.


For example, if someone were to ask questions to anonymous folks publicly in quora, he requires more than need and drive. Skill to frame thought into inquisitive form that is relevant and interesting for the audience is essential. A lack of such ability will leave the user wanting for confidence. If new solutions introduce self doubt about their built up competencies, it will create a drop off effect.


On the flip side if it’s too easy, there is no incentive to challenge oneself. Crux of the matter is that an appropriate interfaces that enhance once ability without draining them of their self image is essential to keep the engagement going. Getting started with something new is hard endeavour to begin with. Sustaining new requires an even harder work. Abilities for which the product is designed holds an important role in shaping behavior.


We humans resist change. Psychologists call it status quo bias and commonly refer to it as behavioral inertia. If we nothing compelling us right now, we take our own time to commit. We do everything possible to avoid it. If there is no other option, we diligently operate to minimize downside. We crib, complain and create excuses not to go through with the new. 


we procrastinate and delay change until an inevitable point where downside of change is better than upside of stagnancy. It takes a long build up to arrive at the point of no return. the tipping point is that moment when a small change tips the balance of a system and brings about a large change. Like when you pour any edible on a scale or make a life changing career decision. It doesn’t happen overnight.


In enterprises, this predicament is even more obvious. Even the highly motivated early adopters who welcome change often face stumbling blocks in adopting the new. Transformation is quite complicated even in a favorable environment. Being sensitive to this struggle and working to activate the switch requires a grasp of the staged model articulated by two psychologists Carlo DiClemente and James O. Prochaska. 


Trans theoretical model of change argues that we go through multiple stages. Customers progress from being oblivious to the need all the way to maintaining new status quo. Tipping the odds in favor of the new normal is slow and steady process with a lot of fluctuations. All of it must begin with a trigger or prompt.


Simply put, a trigger is a reminder to action. A pack of cigarettes at the billing counter is a good example of a trigger. They can be physical and physiological. One feeds on the other to put us in a driven state to consume. Trigger can be external and internal. Feelings of hunger, sex drive or habit driven activities are good examples of internal triggers.  post it note or phone notifications is a good example of external triggers.


According to Fogg there are three kinds of external triggers. 


  • sparks – a motivating trigger, applied where there is high ability but low motivation. A food advert on social media.
  • facilitators – enabling triggers, applied where there is high motivation but low ability. A discount code in the checkout page
  • signals – a prompt, applied where both motivation and ability are high. Notification sound.


A lot of what we have discussed, whether it is about needs, drives, abilities and triggers deal with subconscious and irrational aspects of the human condition. While it is not observable through the naked eye, it’s influence on human decision making is phenomenal. Making people behave in predictable ways requires a grasp of the rational but design for the irrational.

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe - Simon Sinek


Humans will go out of their way to behave irrationally. A manifestation of that can be seen in our relationship with animate and inanimate objects that permeate our environment. Behaviour of pet lovers, their attachment, their obsession is a good example. Another example could be the care people show in maintaining their vehicles.


Psychologists call this associative conditioning. A cognitive impetus that makes us like something due to the positive experiences we have had with it before. We start to prefer a particular type of dog, a particular brand of shoes. You get the drift. To an extent, the thing we are attached to takes control of our choices, decisions and even lives. 


When an individual feels so emotionally connected to the object, the association extends beyond a relationship and evolves into an identity. It becomes so ingrained that what is mine becomes an inseparable part of me. It takes a form and shape beyond a utility and becomes tools of self expression and esteem.


Precisely why, we start liking something before we know what it does and hate something before experiencing it. Things we like boost our inner image, individuality, uniqueness, achievements and together offers us a hedonistic satisfaction. In order to build rapport, you need to tap into the similarities and common interests.


While it may appear to be pandering to one’s ego, the reality of the matter is that we are all beings of self interest and self purpose. Tapping into this self opens the door to the irrational mind.  Holding a fine line that doesn’t buttress one’s ego while simultaneously tapping into subconscious commonalities requires extending the observation to a depth beyond webs of meaning into beliefs, values, attitudes and purpose. 


According to Jodi L Berg, Doctor of Management Programs, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA personal purpose and goals, when aligned to a company vision, appear to impact motivation and engagement in different ways. In fact, the purpose bonding creates a spiritual commitment to participate and contribute to a shared vision of the future.


Meaningful companies are shaped by Purpose and Values. Purpose is the most important reason for your product’s existence. It tells the backstory of how your company came to be working on this particular need. According to simon sinek, why is the shared belief in something that creates an unbreakable bond between the creators and consumers (both employees and customers). 


Purpose is an awe inspiring story that sticks in people’s minds. easy to understand, simplifies big ideas, combines belief and research, makes it relational and puts the stakeholders in a mode of self actualization. Great Purpose statements have the knack of transferring the ownership from the company to the customers thereby achieving immense loyalty and distribution for the cause.


The difference between good and great companies lay in their ability to define why. Accelerate the advent of sustainable transport quips Tesla. Making human civilization multi planetary says SpaceX. Purposeful companies are built on the foundation of timeless vision. Vision leads to Goals which leads to strategies, tactics and activities. 


With design ethnography, we must strive to grasp everything subconscious. In addition to the behavioral elements of consumption, we are also looking for behavioral elements of perception. Purpose, Beliefs, Values and Habits fall into this category and is important to create a resonant identify.


Adam Fridman, founder of Mabbly argues that "Purpose Inspires. Values Guide. Habits Define." Purpose is about why we do what we do, Values are how we achieve purpose. Habits are what we do every day that reflects our purpose and values. With a shared purpose, all that we have done is create awareness about our relevance to the customers life.


Pundits of branding argue that a brand is a lot more than what you sell. It’s all about what you stand for. Notwithstanding technicalities the core of a brand is about the personality and image it projects to the outer world. In that sense, it’s a very humane thing. 


Design ethnography helps us shape our brand in customers image. While you may doubt the need to think about purpose, principles, values, beliefs, habits, personality and other intangibles early on in the product design process, the teams really obsessed with customers leave no stone unturned to learn the things that will ensure positioning and perpetual customer loyalty.


Definitely, this level of depth requires experienced yet practical ethnographers working in tandem with design and marketing gurus. It’s only possible when teams can stretch beyond constrained boundaries of capability to explore the unknown. Customer centricity is indeed a lot of hard work.  


Developing trust based relationship is essential to create a bond. Helping subjects realize the value of synergistic interests is the only way to break the shackles of inhibition and intimidation. Extracting authentic stories and presenting them in simple language is the life work of people centric business aka brands.

Capability, Product Management

Introduction to Strategic Product Discovery

Product Management

Overview of Customer Obsession Toolbox