Insights 10/06/2021 Nick Dormon

The Benefits of User Observation


Yes that’s ‘User’, not ‘Consumer’. It’s not just semantics it’s a mindset difference. When we think ‘Consumer’ we think of that rapid fire process of ‘purchase-consume-repeat’, with all the focus on purchase. Almost as if consumption is happening right there at the shelf. We think so hard about that fraction of a second decision making, putting all our resources in to building standout, recognition and relevance at that moment. Fine, it’s an important point in time, but what about the rest of the journey the person has with their product?

Let’s start thinking about the ‘User’ experience.  From going to the cashier to throwing the remnants in the bin and all in between. What affect does this relationship have on repeat purchase? A great deal I will argue.

The role of packaging

Is the moment I have to tear open the wrap on the dishwasher tablet with my teeth, with its toxic tang lingering on my lips, any less important than the moment when choosing the brand on shelf?  Is the slicing pain felt in my palm from the thin handle on a giant detergent pack going to affect my decision-making any less than the budget price? How long have these bad bits of packaging design been in market? – decades. However, little has been done about them. If their importance is unknown, economy overrides every decision. In the case of the strap – it’s the cheapest it can be made – but does anyone actually know what it’s for?

If we take a look at what the user does, as well as what the consumer says, we will get everything into perspective and start to understand what actually matters. Both the examples above are structural packaging issues – but it goes beyond this. It could be: faulty or substandard product, difficulty in dosing or measuring, in-home storage or out-of-home transportation, poor instructions, difficulty opening and/or sealing, or any other interactions. It could be: product condition and behaviour temperature, viscosity, smell taste, sound…the list goes on.

E-commerce and DTC

Added to the above we now have e-commerce and DTC to contend with, building more complex service elements into usability. We also have sustainability adding to the journey from clear information to easy recycling. Both can be either a new opportunity to engage, or a new set of issues to overcome.

Let’s take a recent personal example.

I wanted to try one of the new ‘natural’ deodorants on the market that come to you via a subscription service in a totally sustainable way. I will leave the brand nameless, but I was totally sold on the marketing and identity. It promised naturality, fine fragrance, and sustainability in a beautifully designed package – it must have gone down a storm in quant and qual. I so wanted it to work, even after the first beautiful subscription box arrived with slightly damaged deo sticks inside (a new business is bound to have teething problems after all!)  I still wanted to believe in the brand when the loading and unloading of the refills was a complete faff. Then the fragrances seemed to fade the longer I had the refills, the stick was a little scratchy and the product marked my t-shirts if I didn’t go into complex yoga moves to put them on. The performance was poor, in fact not much better than not wearing any at all, but at least it was natural. Then when I went to recycle, I had to throw away about 3mm of product left on the stick, not much, but my attention was drawn to it and it seemed a waste. After 6 months I gave up and cancelled my subscription. The commitment of the subscription kept me on for that long, but if it had been a single purchase any one of the above would have turned me off the brand. Yet every one of them could have been avoided.

I’m sure the brand did lots of consumer research, it looked like a well-funded operation, however these are the sorts of issues that won’t come up in a group conversation or even in a consumer diary. They are often too low level even to hit the user’s consciousness. However, when you observe you can see the fiddle of opening, the slight contortion of application and the furrowed brow on trying to recycle. You can see the user and product in context – how they organise, store, use and dispose in their kitchen, bathroom on handbag. You get the detail.

Inclusivity in packaging

Users find their way round things that aren’t quite right so don’t register the issue and subsequently will not mention it. We once observed an old lady sawing off the top of her detergent pack with a breadknife – seemed perfectly reasonable to her, but brought gasps of horror from senior management when they saw the video. That brings us on to inclusivity. We are an aging population with all that it brings; sensorial, strength and dexterity issues. It is the older generation who are especially reticent about admitting any weakness from ageing. So, unless you observe you will never know what is going on at Granny and Granddad’s house. Brands need to engage with inclusivity if they are to retain these customers, especially important as they increasingly have a lot of the spending power. Fortunately, if we design for the neediest, we make it even easier and more pleasurable for everyone else ­– look at the success of Good Grips kitchen brand.

Enhance the experience

We have talked about problems so far, but what about the pleasure? We can identify moments of delight when we see a smile. The art of seeing is essential in this type of research, for example, when we attended research groups for our Axe shower pack, the moderator kept asking what the young guy thought of it, whilst missing that he was compulsively clicked the lid open and shut like a zippo lighter.

We know then what we must preserve and even enhance. Those actions, sensorials, or features could be as important an asset of the brand as the logo. Through the successful application of user observation and testing we developed the Cow and Gate infant formula packaging with its host of usability features. After nearly two decades we are now on the third generation of the design in market yet every time we worked on it there was pressure to cost reduce and remove features. However, when you see the momentary delight, it brings young families with the security of the snap sealed lid, or the convenience of the spoon in the lid, you know they must be retained. They are physical and tangible manifestations of the brand’s caring values brought to life in real situations and repeated over and over again.

Spotting these opportunities and issues takes a trained eye, sometimes an expert ergonomist/psychologist to interpret and certainly a designer to solve or take advantage of what’s seen. However, one of the greatest benefits is the connection and understanding brand managers gain when seeing, first-hand, their users in context of their real lives. Finally, the other rather crucial benefit is the persuasive video of Granny with her breadknife shown to senior stakeholders for budget sign-off.