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Explore Observe Ask: Suspend Your Own Assumption

I used to spend a lot of time in India, as most tech guys do. The subcontinent can be spectacularly disorienting for a Westerner. On one trip, I stayed in a blissfully air-conditioned, five-star hotel. Outside there was 100-degree heat, and the uniquely foul stench of Kolkata’s open sewers and packe

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
7 min read

I used to spend a lot of time in India, as most tech guys do. The subcontinent can be spectacularly disorienting for a Westerner. On one trip, I stayed in a blissfully air-conditioned, five-star hotel. Outside there was 100-degree heat, and the uniquely foul stench of Kolkata’s open sewers and packed streets. Inside I had endless Western cable channels, purified water on tap, and a butler on call. Yet, the view out of my tenth-story window was more interesting than anything on the flat-screen TV. Just outside of the luxurious accommodations, hundreds of manual laborers worked in the sweltering heat to methodically dismantle a multistory building, brick-by-brick, all by hand. The workers moved with an almost hypnotic slowness, yet over the course of my three-day stay the obsolete structure melted away before my eyes. This is one of the conundrums of understanding India, and indeed of understanding any relationship with people outside of your personal experience. The gulf between your experience of how things are done and their experience can be impossible to intuitively understand. You need to suspend your own assumption about what an individual needs and wants, and get out there to explore, observe, ask questions, and allow your beliefs to be challenged and disproved.

The Innovation Challenge

On my return to the United States, I challenged my innovation team at HP to think about emerging markets such as India. We talked a little about the huge gap between the Indian middle and upper class, as well as the lower-class workers who made up the bulk of the population. I described my driver in Kolkata. He was poor and had no education but was one of the most ambitious and focused men I’ve ever met. As a child he had taught himself to speak English, an invaluable skill in India, by listening to the BBC on the radio, I can vouch for the importance of a conversation partner when learning a new language. As a man he was painstakingly schooling his children in the ABCs of spoken (though not written) English every evening. There was no reason for him to think he could claw his way out of poverty except for his own belief that it was possible. There are tens of millions of people like my driver in India—people who were born with nothing, but who are fiercely determined to boost their children out of the poverty they live in. And these men and women are doing it armed with nothing more than cell phones, an eye for opportunity, and creative, determined personalities. At the end of my trip my driver asked for my e-mail and promised to stay in touch; I gave it to him gladly.

The Core Question

I asked the group to think about people like this. What do they want? What do they need? Their tiny annual incomes would typically put them out of range for our standard offerings. Should a company like mine want to engage with people who live so far outside of the Western experience of needs and wants? Well, yes. I think so. Look at it this way: the majority of the world’s population has never owned a personal computer. From a purely marketing point of view, it’s smart to focus on these people, because their situation is evolving and changing with the emergence of an ever-expanding middle class. They, or their children, will one day be technology customers, and I want them to be our customers.

I asked the group to think about one of the core Killer Questions:

Who isn’t using our product because of an assumption of skill or ability?

From the back of the conference room a voice asked, “How can we expect millions of people who can’t read or write even in their own language, let alone English, to want a device that requires you to be literate to use it?” Bingo. With one quick question, the perspective of the entire team changed. How do you bring all the benefits of computing, the Internet, and communication potential to people who are literally unable to interact with the standard keyboard interface? How do you take away that barrier and help them leapfrog into a situation where they feel empowered to use a new device?

This was a classic slap-your-forehead-in-disbelief moment. The entire day we’d been trying to shoehorn the product we wanted and needed—a typical PC setup—into the lives of people who had no use for it. Just like the rest of the industry, we had assumed that all you had to do to win this customer was build a PC cheaply enough. Eventually we realized that thinking this way meant we were missing the point—that two overwhelming needs of the tens of millions of potential customers in the subcontinent are relevancy and simplicity. They don’t want to update their Facebook page or send a tweet. What they want is a very simple machine that will allow them to communicate with their friends and families and educate their children.

Expanding Our View Of The Customer

We were approaching the problem with a limited point of view. We thought that our product lacked functionality, when in fact it had too much. The seeming complexity of navigating a standard PC scared users who had limited, or no, written-language skills. They didn’t want to try early prototypes because they were afraid of the machines, and of humiliating themselves in front of our engineers. Their biggest fear was the keyboard, and the symbols on it. What should have facilitated them using the device was actually preventing it.

Once we finally started to talk to our potential customers, and look at the computer through their eyes rather than our own, we dramatically changed the features of the PC. We asked the Killer Questions about what these potential customers actually needed and wanted, and the overwhelming answer was education, communication, and entertainment.

The Idea

The product that was sparked by these questions—HP DreamScreen 400—is a touch-screen device that fulfills these three needs with an easy-to-use, easy-to-understand touch interface. The keyboard and mouse are optional. It used simple depictive symbols for those who don’t understand Hindi or English to communicate with the user. Communication is a key issue in India, as well as many other emerging markets. The young emigrate to find opportunities abroad and, as a result, their families are split up. Their parents and grandparents typically don’t have e-mail addresses, but most video-calling services like Skype require one to register for their product. This might seem like a small hurdle, but for people living in rural areas it’s insurmountable. How do we enable video calling with no assumption of literacy? Each DreamScreen was issued a “phone number,” rather than an e-mail address, and the user simply replicates the familiar experience of using a cell phone (press the green button to make a call) in order to make a video call.

It had a number of other applications including one that allows people to make simple transactions, such as purchasing train tickets or paying their bills without waiting in line. Now, nobody asked for DreamScreen, and this is a key thing to think about as you use the Killer Questions to help generate ideas. Nobody came to HP and said, Hey, the illiterate customers in emerging markets could really use a simple application to facilitate communication, education, and entertainment in a easy and inexpensive manner. None of the people who video-chat with far-off relatives, or who are helping their children learn to read and write thought that they needed or wanted this device. The automatic answer for the computer industry was to make a PC cheap enough so the emerging markets will buy it. But I believe that the vast majority of people who buy or are given a DreamScreen quickly saw it as an indispensable and very necessary tool in their lives.

Customer Needs and Wants

They need it and they want it; they just don’t know it yet.

And if you don’t know you need or want something, then how can you ask for it?

This is a huge part of your task as an innovator. You need to be able to analyze and understand your potential customer’s needs and wants before they are even able to clearly state them. Our Indian customers thought that standing in line for eight hours to pay a bill was simply the way things are done. It might have frustrated them, but they didn’t think of it as a hassle that required a solution. It was up to us to see the possibilities here and deliver value. Time is the one universal commodity that we all prize. If I succeed in developing products to save people time, I build loyalty with a customer. If you are stuck in the innovation process, always remember that trying to save people time, thereby giving them a piece of their life back, is a great way to start. And never wait for your customers to ask you for a product, because if you wait for them to make a request, you are going to be stuck in a slow and incremental process of innovation.

Asking The Right Questions

So, how do you apply this lesson to your own experience?

This question—and the other questions in full list of Killer Questions —are about understanding your customer and how their needs and wants change over time. Are they getting what they really need and want from you, or are you currently just an acceptable rather than ideal option to fill their needs? If it’s the latter, then you’re in trouble. Your clock is already ticking. As soon as a better option comes around, you will run the risk of losing your customer to them. Think of all the people who left Friendster and went to Facebook.

You must also be aware of and prepared for the possibility that everything you assumed to be true yesterday may be disproved today. This is the same whether you are overseeing a multibillion-dollar success or struggling to keep a family business alive. Ten years ago the only way you could easily buy a plane ticket or book a hotel was to call a travel agent. Today? That entire industry, with a few specialized exceptions, is out of business. Why? Because the service that travel agents offer no longer fits the criteria of their who—customers looking to travel. Using a travel agent—at least for simple trips—now seems to add hassles rather than reduce them. Are you missing similar writing on the wall in terms of how you think about your customers?

Do Not Assume

Do you assume your customers will remain loyal to you because they have never told you their needs are changing?

If the answer is yes, then you are comfortable, and that’s the most dangerous place to be. Why? Because the world—and especially the business world—is no longer a comfortable place. These are difficult and sometimes dangerous times, and complacency will kill you.

Somewhere, right now, one of your competitors is having a DreamScreen moment. They are looking at the needs of your customers, and seeing a need that you’ve been too complacent to notice. In a very short period of time, you and your work are going to seem obsolete unless you can beat them to the punch.

Book ExcerptsassumptioncustomersEmerging MarketsKiller Questionsneeds and wantspotential customers

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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