Creating Smart Connected Products Starts with Ethnographic Research

We are rapidly transitioning to a world in which all of our products will be smart and connected. The effect on competitive dynamics will be profound, as Michael Porter and Jim Heppelman pointed out in their recent HBR article. Traditional industry boundaries will be blurred, and the new super industries will be defined around the jobs companies do for people—not by the products the companies make. (Think: automobile industry replaced by personal transportation industry.)


In this new world of opportunities defined around jobs to be done for people, it will be more critical than ever to see things from your customers’ perspective—not the organization’s. The key to shifting your perspective: Utilizing qualitative, ethnographic research early on in the development process. Companies such as Nest, Lego, and Proctor & Gamble have adopted these methodologies and created products and services that deeply resonate with the people they serve and have lead to massive financial success.


Creating Smart Connected Products – What Research?
Most traditional research methods, such as surveys and focus groups, are too narrow in their approach to uncover new opportunities. They may uncover what’s wrong with a product as it’s defined today, but they won’t help you understand why a customer uses a product or what else that product connects to in a customer’s life. In contrast, ethnographic research explores experiences and creates deep empathy with your customer. Specifically, it will help you see the opportunities for smart connected products by shifting your perspective in two fundamental ways:


  1. Shift From Narrow to Broad: Typical research focuses too much on the product in question. Let’s say for example, you are a blender manufacturer. Research will typically focus on the storage, use, and cleaning of the blender. But that’s not enough. The blender is simply a tool employed by the user to accomplish a job—making breakfast for example—so to see the opportunities that smart connected technologies may help you capture, the research lens needs to be broadened to encompass the entire breakfast preparation; the making, eating, and clean up experience. One of the benefits of smart, connected technologies is that they knit together pieces of an experience that used to be separate (appliances that connect to grocery shopping for example). Therefore, it’s critical to go broad and understand the entire job that a product is part of. Only ethnographic techniques will allow you to accomplish this shift in perspective.
  2. Shift From Functional to Emotional: The second change of perspective is to recognize that the job being done is often as much emotional as it is functional. Once the breadth of an experience is understood, it’s critical to understand why people do what they do. Sure, they make dinner to gain nutrition, but how do they feel about feeding their family? Do they get a sense of creative accomplishment? Is it something they just want out of the way to focus on other priorities? Qualitative research techniques allow you to probe these “whys.” And this is important because smart connected technologies make it easier to tap these deeper consumer values to create truly compelling experiences that resonate at not just functional, but emotional levels. For example, compare this Connected Cocktail System to a cocktail recipe book and tool set. Both make the process of cocktail creation easier, but only the smart connected system puts cocktails at the center of the social connections they are there to lubricate in the first place.


In an analog world, manufacturers were able to get by without employing these techniques. But in our brave new connected world, they will have no chance. The future is creating smart connected products and experiences that resonate for customers at functional and emotional levels. The only way to capture such opportunities is to get out of the office and into your customer’s kitchen.

Dan Ostrower

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Dan Ostrower