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Harnessing The Power of Extreme Consumers

 

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We were lucky enough to be featured in the Financial Times in a piece about extreme consumers. Here’s the full article by Alicia Clegg.

Micah Melton has strong opinions about ice. The water to make it must be double boiled; small dense cubes are best for shaking cocktails; a 9-inch shard of ice chills a gin and tonic to perfection and imparts just the right dilution.

As chef de cuisine at The Aviary, a Chicago cocktails bar, Mr Melton recently allowed a team of innovation consultants to a US home appliances maker to peek inside the drink kitchen over which he presides. They watch ed him prepare drinks as he would for friends and listened as he railed against domestic freezers that churn out “terrible” uniform little cubes.

Welcome to the world of extreme consumers – the mavericks, outliers and downright obsessives that may shine a new light on how a product should be developed.

Sense Worldwide, the London-based innovation consultancy that interviewed Mr Melton for the domestic appliances maker, is among a growing number of consultancies and design teams that draft in “extreme consumers”. While common sense suggests mainstream brands should talk to ordinary people, some product researchers argue that consumers whose expectations go far beyond those of average users can offer richer in sights because they are the ones for whom the performance matters most. “If you ask people what they want, often they will look at you a bit blankly, because most of us are instinctively quite conservative [and inclined to like what we know],” says Brian Millar, director of strategy at Sense Worldwide.

Eric von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, recommends seeking out those whose enthusiasm for, or frustration with, existing products is greatest. Not only might their take on improvements be better articulated, but they may have improvised a solution. “You are going out and finding people who have developed a product for their own use and shown that it works,” Prof von Hippel says.

When helping a client develop a toilet brush, Sense Worldwide observed consumers with an obsessive compulsion for cleaning their lavatories hygienically. Many wrapped the bristles in toilet paper to minimise contamination, giving Sense Worldwide the idea of flush-away biodegradable covers for the brush-heads. “Because [the participants] were so interested in the minutiae of cleaning, they were willing to go into details that most people would rather not think about,” Mr Millar says.

Other mavericks Sense Worldwide has pressed into the service of innovation include ex-convicts for an information technology usability project − while behind bars they had missed out on the smartphone and so viewed it with fresh eyes − and dominatrices who shared tips with a foot care brand on how to avoid blisters: “We needed people who wear uncomfortable shoes,” Mr Millar explains.

The range of businesses hoping to learn from users that go to extremes is widening. Sports and fashion brands led the way, but more recent converts include insurers and banks. For a project on service checkouts, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Ideo, an innovation and design consultancy, went to the fringes of retailing to talk to a pop-up strawberry-picking farmshop as well as high street stores.

Observing retailers in various sectors struggling to accommodate the many ways that consumers want to pay led the bank to develop what it hopes will be a more flexible payment method. By downloading apps to handheld devices, now in the final stages of testing, staff will be able to split bills for groups, record cash transactions and open tabs for regulars. “Talking to extremes helped us understand the full gamut of needs . . . we realised our mindset would not necessarily lead us to the right answer,” says Andrew Cheesman, who heads the Commonwealth Bank division that provides payment technologies for business customers.

Not everyone is an enthusiast for extreme research. John Curran, founder of JC Innovation & Strategy, argues that most innovations, whether hatch ed in laboratories or gar ages, emerge through tinkering. “Eureka” discoveries are possible – businesses developed skateboards after spotting teenagers who improvised their own – but un likely: “Most innovation is incremental and the research that feeds it is wide-ranging.”

Certainly, extreme uses may turn out to be mere foibles. To improve the odds of spotting trends with broad appeal, Sue Siddall, a partner at IDEO, likes to work simultaneously with opposite extremes. IDEO took this approach with Galenicum, a Spanish pharmaceutical business that hopes to use “human centric” design to give excess-cholesterol sufferers a reason to prefer its drugs over rivals. Joaquim Domingo, a partner at Galenicum, learnt from views contributed by an illiterate farmworker, a college educated 25-year-old and a pensioner with multiple diseases (who invented his own method for avoiding medication mix-ups). “With normal consumers you get [ideas] that everyone gets; with extremes you get many crazy ideas, a few of which might [lead somewhere].”

With the coming together of trends such as tech enthusiasts rediscovering DIY through the “maker movement” and open-source technologies, extreme research is entering a new phase. At Ford, K Venkatesh Prasad, who oversees its open innovation strategy, is running an initiative, OpenXC, that encourages car enthusiasts to build motoring apps by giving them access to data from car sensors. The inventors are not obliged to consult Ford about their ideas − which range from a collaborative weather-warning scheme to apps that help use less fuel − but some choose to. Until now, Mr Prasad says, car hobbyists met at weekends. Thanks to virtual communities, “the weekend can now be every day”.

But will commercial-scale innovations result? Prof von Hippel argues that extreme consumers – from creators of white-knuckle sports to surgeons who invent better instruments − are al ready significant innovators. But businesses “need to learn better behaviour”. Extreme users invent mainly to satisfy their own needs, with commercialisation as an afterthought, he says. Yet would-be collaborators with citizen innovators often “don’t ac knowledge their contribution, which makes [them] justifiably annoyed”.

Mr Melton, for his part, merely hopes the ideas he donated will give rise to better ice-making gadgetry for the home. “The sooner it happens the better,” he says.

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