There's been a lot of talk about innovation, maybe, maybe too much talk. While no one tells us it's easy, the fifth column cheerleaders, pundits, and bloggers do their utmost to make it sound fun. But innovation (whatever the hell it is) can often be very uncomfortable. If I were hawking innovation-boosting t-shirts (and who knows, if this column thing doesn't pan out, I might just), mine would proclaim "If it doesn't feel weird, you're not doing it right."
Let's take this ad for Lunapads:
When I saw this ad, I was exceptionally uncomfortable. [Note to empathy-free women and overly-enlightened men: you may not feel uncomfortable. But I did.]
But after emitting a sub-audible "ecch" and setting the ad aside, I paused and reflected on my reaction. Clenching ever so slightly, I went back to the ad and looked more closely.
There are so many signals here that buck the mainstream norm for "feminine hygiene." Where current imagery might feature billowing swathes of diaphanous fabric, smiling models and free birds winging on high, here we have two enthusiastic, potentially sexually aggressive women. Instead of handling the product discreetly, they are thrusting it towards us in celebration? Challenge?If they were selling, oh I don't know, maybe ice cream, I'd find this pretty hot. If I'm accurate in picking up (subtle for someone with my too-too-straight life) lesbian cues, then even more so. I'm kinda freaked out by these women, but mmm, sexy. But oh, no, it's not ice cream. It's definitely not ice cream. It's menstrual cups (umm, what?) Good Lord, boys, head for the hills!
The next transgressive element is the crafter pad holders. These women aren't the retiring sort, and they aren't going to thrust just any pad holder at you, it's going to be an Etsy-worth customized pad holder (but one you could probably make yourself if you had the pattern and a bit of time). Yep, we've got feminine hygiene accessories - and they aren't taking a back seat, nosiree.
And what about the product? What exactly are menstrual cups? Wikipedia explains it all: "Unlike tampons and pads, the cup collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it." Well gosh, that's not how it's supposed to work! I'm clearly (if you haven't twigged to it by now) not a companion of Aunt Flo, but I'm figuring absorption conceals and does other built-in mess management. Collection can't help but displaying the full details of the situation.
If I'm involved in the design of menstrual products, I've now been significantly challenged:
How we label the need (feminine hygiene vs. "periods" in the ad)
How we frame the user (discreet, pretty but not sexual)
How we frame the solution (discreet, absorbent, hidden)
I've offered an extreme example here; a category that isn't part of everyday conversation, a behavior that separates genders, generations, and other cultural groups. I'm giving you an unvarnished peek into my own naivete and typical-guy fear bullshit to make the point. In our work with organizations, we often encounter this discomfort, albeit in a more subtle form. And in being more subtle, these biases (which present as discomfort) are harder to identify, work around and extinguish.
One of the coded phrases we hear is "That's not our customer." This is the designer's version of "Some of my best friends are Jewish" - always said politely, earnestly, and with an intelligent conviction that purports - but ultimately fails - to dilute the harmful closed-mindedness. Of course companies have segments to market to and design for, but the opportunity to spend time with a real person and explore at how they are conceiving and solving (or not) problems, that's a gift.
But this is where the discomfort causes problems: Unwrapping this gift, we see that real people don't use the proper terms for our features, don't understand how our products work, and don't actually care about what we want them to care about. And so we marginalize the messenger instead of embracing the message.
Imagine being a designer, marketer, or other working at a major CPG, where there's already a great deal of cultural momentum around improvements to current solutions for tampons and pads (New packaging? Better applicators? New fragrances? Cost reduction? Green initiatives? New branding to target emerging segments?). Of course people who work in this category already know about cups, but let's pretend that they don't (we're working with metaphors here, people!). How does the organization react to this? Do they marginalize the solution ("Cups don't work")? Do they fall back on prior work, relevant or not? ("We launched a cup solution a few years ago but there was no margin")? Do they marginalize the target users ("Those people aren't our customers")? Consider the eureka-evoking experience of discovering a new customer attitude and uncovering a new behavior, and then coming to grips with the opportunity this affords. That forces everyone in the organization - at some level - to examine their personal and organizational values, hidden beliefs and unarticulated expectations around the fundamentals that get them up every morning. You're damn skippy that's going to be uncomfortable.
Being a consultant, I witness some startling exchanges as this discomfort starts to bubble up. The most delightful is a sneaky yes-and switcheroo, where what we're explaining is repeated back to us with some willful rewriting.
Steve: Now we saw a lot of folks who were really aware of germs in the environment but had trouble taking steps to protect themselves because they didn't want to look like they had OCD.
Client: So, for those OCD-customers...
While frustrating, these are small moments of failure and they are natural. It's a bigger issue than whether or not I can persuade an individual, in the moment, about OCD or menstrual cups. These small moments of failure are indicators of issues that are deeply embedded in the organizational culture. Addressing this discomfort (and the limitations it gives rise to) is a process. Recognizing these breaks with reality takes practice, advocacy and leadership.
Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting. In the past 15 years Steve has interviewed families eating breakfast, rock musicians, credit-default swap traders, and radiologists. His work has informed the development of music gear, wine packaging, medical information systems, corporate intranets, videoconferencing systems, and iPod accessories. Steve is an accomplished presenter who speaks about culture, innovation, and design at companies like eBay, Adobe, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, and Dolby Laboratories. He has a graduate degree in Human-Computer Interaction from the University of Guelph and is an avid photographer who has a Museum of Foreign Groceries in his home.
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