Tag Archives: innovation

Baby Boomer

Bridging The Distancing Effects Of Age

As part of Propellerfish’s Coronavirus work-from-home plan, we ask our team members to call their parents and grandparents.

Our projects rarely ask questions about how we can make the world around us more user friendly for our parents and grandparents. This is a big group of people. It’s also a group that, through a mix of genetics and better decisions, we will likely be joining at some point in time. With our team working from home amidst a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the older people in our lives, we asked everyone to call their parents and grandparents. We asked them to check in and listen for insights into the years ahead of us.

The effects of age magnify physical distances.

The physical paths to the things we care about most become longer with age. A short walk to visit a neighbour becomes an investment of a limited amount of energy that needs to be budgeted and replenished. Travelling even short distances comes with risks of falling which limits access to things we care about as we get older. Many of the seniors we spoke to could no longer drive, which transformed small trips into huge distances overnight.

“I can walk around on my own with a walking stick around the house but generally feel breathless after a few steps and then I have to sit down. I’m bored at home, I don’t go out besides medical appointments at the hospital and  functions like weddings. Even that it is a chore to shower and tie a saree and go anywhere.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

The effects of age puts distance between us and the activities that give us meaning.

Seniors talked to us about being distanced from the activities that gave them meaning in their younger years. One grandparent whose primary source of exercise and social interaction came from a regular game of tennis twice a week had to stop after a bad fall. Many talked to us about retirement distancing them from the profession that had given them meaning their entire lives.

Seniors Basketball
“I knew my squash game was in decline, but I didn’t want to give it up. For about 18 months after quitting I was depressed. I realised I was missing something that I’d actually spent a lot of time doing and it was really important to me.” (Tim’s Dad, UK)

Aging puts distance between us and the people we care about.

The seniors in our lives talked about being both literally and metaphorically farther away from the people they cared about. Some had lost hearing and found it hard to connect with the people around them. We heard about how younger people couldn’t relate to their experiences in older age. And obviously, the physical distance they need to travel in order to visit people they care about is harder to travel with depleted energy levels and less access to transportation.

“You can’t hear and it’s frustrating. I’m right there in a room with people and I don’t know what’s happening or what they’re trying to say to me. You’re physically there but you’re still far away.” (Miguel, 96, Miami)
“In the last 2 years especially, I feel more lonely because I’m less mobile. My two daughters live with me but they go to work. I have a helper from India and we talk a lot about the customs and I tell her my stories from when i had struggles.” (Darsh’s Grandma, Singapore)

Getting older puts distance between us and strangers.

Our seniors felt they weren’t acknowledged by people out in the world the way they were when they were younger. Shop staff are less likely to approach them, people are less likely to make eye contact with them on the street, and they generally feel as though they go unnoticed when out in public.

“A woman I’m in the garden club with asked me, ‘do you ever get the feeling that people treat you like you’re invisible now that you’re old?’ and it’s true. People in stores don’t pay attention to you.” (Retired Nurse, 76, Miami)

The effects of aging create distance between us and ourselves.

Our grandparents talked about feeling distanced from themselves. On the one hand they talked to us about how in their minds they feel like the same person they were in their younger years. On the other, they felt their diminishing physical and mental capacity a constant reminder of the distance between the person they were and the person they are today.

Senior Insights
“Looking at pictures of me 10 years ago, it’s not the same person. If I see pictures on the wall taken 40 years ago, it’s there but I am not there anymore.” (Alex’s Dad, 95)

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging us all to find ways to manage distance from our work, from our loved ones, and from the basic necessities we need to keep ourselves and our families going. As we manage the crisis ahead, let’s think about the members of our communities for whom age has already made the things that matter farther and harder to access. And let’s take a moment to think about how we can play a small part in bridging that distance for them through this crisis and beyond.

Aside from asking staff calling their grandparents, Propellerfish has donated to Meals On Wheels and Age UK who are offering practical support for the elderly in the US and UK during this time. We have also made a donation to Doctor’s Without Borders whose work will become increasingly important as this crisis impacts some of the more vulnerable regions of the world where much of our project work happens.

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

Thinking Forward & Thinking Backwards

The most clever people in business have a talent for thinking forward. They reframe problems in ways that bring clarity to the beginning of a strategy process. They distill user needs down to precise opportunities. They design solutions that address those needs perfectly. Thinking forward is every consultant’s comfort zone. Thinking forward gets you to a perfect solution.

Unfortunately, perfect solutions struggle in an imperfect world. They are often divorced from the imperfect realities of implementation. They ignore the imperfect personal politics of big organizations. They ignore the very practical imperfections of new markets. Reality eats perfect solutions for breakfast.

If thinking forward gets us to perfection, thinking backwards helps us design for the imperfect reality ahead. Thinking backwards is about starting with end game realities in mind. Its about engaging technical people from the start. It’s about starting at the shelf and working backwards from a retailers point of view around stocking something new. It’s about prototypes sitting on a real shelf during a pilot. It’s about working backwards through every stage of the commercialisation journey ahead of your ideas to ensure those ideas become something real and impactful in the world.

Great innovation is designed for an imperfect world by keeping the full journey to market in mind.

In a world that celebrates the journey to the summit, most of the fatalities on Mt. Everest happen on the way down. Successful teams think the climb through not just to the summit but to moment a climber returns safely to base camp. Innovation teams have a habit of focusing on the summit at the expense of getting back to basecamp safely.

The least popular people in businesses tend to think backwards.

Thinking backwards early on can make you an unpopular voice in the beanbag circle. When it comes to innovation, organizations overemphasize the art of thinking forward. They emphasis is on new ideas as the antidote to business as usual and often shelter innovation teams from the imperfection of the real world. The result is usually a team focused on the summit with no idea how to come down.

Great innovation teams pair the creative vision to think forward with the operational and commercial awareness to think backwards so solutions actually get to market. They are like time travellers with the ability to operate in both the present and the end of an innovation journey at one time. They can think forward to a solution and backwards through implementation at once. They use constraints drawn from thinking backwards as springboards for thinking forward.

Organizations need to equip innovation teams with more holistic commercial skillsets. Put people with a complete view how innovation happens at the start of your journey so teams have more impact to show for themselves in the end.

On The Value Of Half-Baked Solutions

You’re kicking off a project aimed at solving something complicated. Something that’s a priority across the organization. Your 6 month timeline feels short. Your starting point can be interpreted as an inspiring blank slate or a very intimidating zero.

At your first meeting, a colleague suggests solving the problem now. In fifteen minutes.

An uncomfortable silence follows.

This exercise makes most people uncomfortable, but tapping into that discomfort can unearth insights that give projects direction. That discomfort can help you identify the knowledge gaps undermining the group’s confidence and help the team prioritize what questions need answers before a team can arrive at a solution with confidence.

Where does it hurt?

Your team has hastily tackled the colossal challenge ahead in fifteen minutes. Before they present back, ask them to pause and reflect on how they’d feel if they had to recommend this solution to a more critical group of stakeholders within the company. Ask them to write down the aspects of the solution that make them the most nervous in descending order of concern.

Anxiety as a project planning tool

Now ask people to reframe their most fundamental concerns as a question that needs to be answered over the course of the project.  These questions can then become a guide for the learning journey ahead. Meanwhile those early solutions, no matter how rough, are valid hypotheses worth exploring.

Ultimately, innovation is a learning process where our earliest solutions make for better questions than answers. Understanding what makes us nervous about those earliest hunches can tell us a lot about how we can reach an outcome with confidence in the end.

Alex Marquez is the founder of Propellerfish, an insights and innovation agency with offices in London and Singapore.

Strategy Is A Human Practice

All commercial growth starts and ends with people.

Whether the conversation is about a new system, a technology, a B2B product, a manufacturing process, or a business model, all growth is a result of people doing something they were not doing before. But for some reason, our vocabulary around growth tends to dehumanize it. We focus on what organizations do and the outcomes of clever strategies, but growth only happens when human beings take action.

People make strategy real.

Global strategy becomes real when teams in local markets agree to take action. Marketing Strategy becomes real when consumers choose our products instead of someone else’s. Service Design becomes real when frontline employees adopt a new way of delivering a service. Product Innovation becomes real when a retailer agrees to put your new product on a shelf. Each of these things involve someone doing something they were not doing before.

Where thinking meets doing

The past ten years at Propellerfish has been a front-row seat watching people make growth happen or hold it back in businesses around the world. Our team has championed the realities of local teams on global innovation projects. We have spent time with traditional retailers in India understanding how they think about inventory. We have spent time on factory floors in Germany understanding worker concerns about digitisation. We have delivered sodas to retailers in Nigeria. We have unlocked the potential of a B2B technology by recognising that the current interface is unintuitive to non-engineers. We’ve worked on petrol station forecourts to understand how to motivate staff to deliver better service.

Successful leaders recognise that commercial growth is delivered by human hands and work backwards from the people to make growth happen. Because designing commercial growth around the people who make progress happen brings us several steps closer to making growth happen in the real world.

Alex Marquez

By Alex Marquez

Alex founded Propellerfish in 2009 and is currently leads the team based out London.

Back End Innovation

Front End Innovation Needs More Backend Reality

The term Front End Innovation implies an unhelpful distance between the concept stage and the hard work of getting products to market. Teams that are great at Front End Innovation, tends to understand that great Front End Innovation starts at the Back End.

If your goal is a product in market, thinking backwards from that outcome helps teams focus their work on what matters at every stage in their work.

It helps you focus on the right things at the right time

Corporate innovation typically means developing solutions that can scale within massive corporate systems. Those systems come with complexity startups don’t typically have to deal with. When we see teams getting lost in complexity, we ask them to pause, let go of where they are in the process and think through the journey of designing a new product or service in reverse, from the moment it hits the market to right now. Thinking in reverse reminds teams of what it really takes to get a solution to market and helps them prioritize the right things at the right times to keep moving forward.

It helps you focus on the right stakeholders

While working with an automaker in North America, the outcome we wanted was a better customer experience. We could have gotten lost in all the ways this could happen. Thinking the challenge through in reverse reminded the team that this outcome sits in the hands of dealers. We redesigned our project to think through the challenge from the perspective of dealers rather than the automaker. The result was a suite of services dealers would be willing and able to deliver well.

It helps you focus your questions

On an consumer goods project, we hit a roadblock when a team could not agree on the details of an ambitious round of consumer research across 3 countries. We paused and all agreed that the outcome we wanted was a successful product on shelf. When thinking backwards through the journey, we realised our biggest challenge wasn’t consumer insight (we had loads of it). The real challenge was that the organization’s existing manufacturing assets limited our landscape of solutions dramatically. We shifted our focus to rigorously iterating around the three products the organization could deliver and a product hit shelves 18 months later.

It helps you focus your consumer research

On a project focused on alcohol occasions, we realized that no matter how great our final product was, it would go nowhere if it was not embraced by bartenders. We designed a week in each market where our first and last interactions were with bartenders. That vantage point helped us ground our work in what mattered to our key gatekeeper before finalising our thinking about what a successful product would need to do in order to succeed.

It helps you create innovation for the real world

An innovation process that starts at the back end is more consider all of the factors that dictate success at those final stage gates. On a drinks innovation project, we involved R&D in our research stage. Being present during those early conversations sparked connections between what consumers told us and an amazing technology that was available through a vendor. That technology became the core of our winning concept early on. The result was a project with an immediate roadmap through their system into market.

It helps you focus on your organization’s strengths

Many organizations respond to opportunities without really thinking about whether they are the player in their industry to deliver. Starting at the back end can give you a healthy dose of perspective around whether this is an opportunity your organization should tackle alone or whether this is better approached as a partnership or through an acquisition.

Amazon has a similar approach to innovation called “Working Backwards”. You can hear our friend Wen talk about that here.


If you are looking to put more back end in your front end innovation process, here are six exercises to re-focus on what matters by forcing them to think projects through in reverse.


Propellerfish is an innovation and insights firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead innovation projects with an eye on what it takes to get products and services to market.

Responsive Consumer Insight

Better Consumer Insights Through Responsive Design

The process of understanding something complicated begins with more questions than answers. When it comes to consumer insight work, the more we learn, the better our questions get and our best questions tend to be the ones we ask later in our discovery process. Great research responds to new learning. It snowballs, evolves and gets better over time. Yet the dogmas of traditional consumer insight work tend to ignore the power of questions we don’t yet know to ask.

On a project aimed at rethinking a mobile payment platform in India, our clients wanted help understanding why their current solution wasn’t working for their target female user and how they could pivot that solution into something that works.

We planned an intense week of research across about a dozen rural villages in Uttar Pradesh. After day 1, we realized something important: most of these users were illiterate, they did not have phones, and they did not manage home finances.

That night, we redesigned our fieldwork completely to understand what it would take to make mobile financial services work in this region. We broadened our focus from female users to include men since they were the ones with the phones, the home finance responsibility and literacy required to transact via mobile in these communities. We also tapped into local telco agents and street shops selling top up credit. These people knew more about the users than we could ever learn in a week.

Day 2 taught us that the idea of a mobile payment solution was attractive because paying bills was inefficient and took time away from earning a living. We also learned that telco agents had no interest in mobile finance because it required them to keep enough cash on hand for people to cash out and offered an insignificant payoff compared to the other things they sold.

Our week in field snowballed into our final day where we focused exclusively on telco agents in order to understand what we would need to offer them in order to make this commercially viable from their perspective.

A great research methodology responds to consumer insights you hadn’t expected to find

If we had stuck with our discussion guide, we would have come back with a fairly limited insight. Iterating on our methodology in real time meant we came back with consumer insights and principles teams can use to craft actual solutions.

Responsive Research Design puts structure around flexibility the iterative nature of great research. It allows projects to evolve in real time with protocols in place that ensure changes are made methodically by a team that knows what they’re doing.

Here are six things that Propellerfish teams do to help insight projects respond to new learning and get smarter over time.

01. Debrief early and often

Where possible, teams debrief in a standard format at the end of each day, if not after each interview. On global projects, we land a refined picture of the project after we complete fieldwork in each market. This emphasis on landing insights and solutions regularly means missing knowledge and new questions are raised before it is too late to address them.

02. Jump to incomplete solutions

We periodically challenge our teams to land what they’d do if they had to solve the challenge with only the data they captured on day 1. Sitting with an incomplete solution (perhaps a bit uncomfortably) helps teams understand which areas need further exploration so they can solve problems more confidently later in a project.

03. Build in time for less structured exploration

Avoid the temptation to over-schedule your time in market. Wandering streets with a translator can get you surprisingly far when it comes to addressing questions you hadn’t anticipated needing answers to before your consumer insight project started.

04. Engage the people who know your people early

Experts who know a lot about your user are people to speak to upfront. They can help you skip the basics and get more out of your time in field. If a pivot needs to be made to your methodology, you can make that happen early.

05. Hire locals

Global teams are great at piecing together a picture that cuts across markets, but it’s hard to get beneath the surface of a culture that isn’t your own. Hire someone local to keep you in check. These people don’t need to be researchers. We’ve hired our own respondents, friends, and translators to stick with us throughout our fieldwork to ensure we process consumer insight and tweak our methodology through a local lens .

06. Put experienced boots on the ground

It takes experience to know when and how to pivot a research methodology in field. We make sure every team has a leader capable of leading teams towards better research as research is unfolding.

Because insight projects are a learning process, our methodology around those projects should that respond to new learning. Responsive project design allows teams to evolve a project as they learn within structures that encourage the right evolution at the right time.

To learn more about our approach to consumer insight work, read our article on how innovation teams need a different approach to insights.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that closeness is the key to better insights.

Innovation Lab

Successful Innovation Labs Have Something Obvious In Common

Innovation labs within large companies have a spotty track record of lasting more than 24 months. What separates survivors from the teams that fold is an ability to align what they’re doing with problems and opportunities that matter to the organization. If you’ve been charged with setting up an innovation team, our one piece of advice is to start there.


“Our innovation lab built a good sandbox of technologies that are the future of this industry but the organization was too slow to adopt any of them.” – Head Of Innovation Lab, Financial Services


All organizations are slow, but while they may be slow to adopt solutions in one area they’re probably busy implementing things with urgency in another. If you’re in the slow camp, you’re either (1) working on something transformational with the support of a future focused leadership team or (2) you’re working on something nobody genuinely cares about. If you’re in the second camp, it’s time to reprioritise.


“The team had 15 priorities when I arrived. We picked five that had teams needing to implement urgently. We had a launch in 18 months. That impact fuels support and engagement on everything else.” Head Of Innovation, Consumer Goods


Start by understanding the organization’s priorities. Too many innovation labs start by ordering 3D printers and looking for startups to hang out with. The successful ones start by understanding the areas of the business that need help and align their efforts with what these areas need in order to move forward.


“We didn’t start with startups, we took time and seconded our team to live and work alongside the different functions within the bank. We learned exactly what each team needed and are now incubating startups that solve those problems so the solutions become bank ready.” Innovation Lab, Financial Services


Land quick wins. Understanding priorities can help you understand where the quick wins are. You’re going to need some of those in order to have enough momentum to carry you over the longer term. Have some stories to tell sooner rather than later.


Finally, realise that success in this role could look a lot more like “mission accomplished” than “job for life”. Successful innovation teams have a tendency to do themselves out of a job. Always look ahead to what a successful innovation lab will set you up to do next.

If you’ve found yourself setting up an innovation unit inside a large organization, check out our article on How To Build A Successful Innovation Centre.

Experiment: Designing An Innovation Toolkit

By 2015, Propellerfish had partnered with Cisco’s internal innovation teams across dozens of initiatives around the world. The need for support on innovation projects throughout the organization was growing and Cisco’s internal innovation teams realized that volume of requests for their services had grown beyond what they could reasonable deliver.

Propellerfish was starting to see similar limitations in other client businesses. We decided to sit down together and segment out the types of requests on a spectrum. At one end were teams needing help running simple things like workshops. At the other, were teams needing more robust support working through complex challenges. We realized many of the former were initiatives teams could be tackling on their own. With the right innovation toolkit, we were convinced they’d be successful leading smaller innovation projects and innovation workshops without us.

We set out to understand the anatomy of these challenges and realized they had three things in common:

1. The time and resources these teams had to dedicate to the initiative was limited. They needed answers quickly and needed to move on with their day jobs. The right innovation toolkit would help them get the most out of the time they had to dedicate to this challenge.

2. They were situations where the need (or the resources) to conduct any meaningful insight work was not present. Teams were in a position to jump to solutions and weren’t looking for months (or even weeks) of rigorous user research and solution development. The innovation toolkit would need to help them be insightful with the time and perspectives available within their team.

3. A huge part of the task at hand was really understanding what they were trying to achieve with this project – the innovation toolkit would need to force them to pause and reflect on what made them approach Cisco’s Innovation Management Office in the first place.

We developed our first innovation toolkit in 2014 as an experiment. The prototype was basic: a plastic box contained a booklet on process, basic templates for running a session and the stationery people would need in order to complete a working session.

We learned a lot from that first experiment. Specifically, we realized that teams need two things: (1) efficient guidance and (2) structured flexibility.  Efficient guidance in that they needed to understand what they were doing but did not have tons of time to watch an instructional video. Structured flexibility in the sense that every session was inherently different. People needed the ability to customize their journey without compromising on the structure that made workshops run well.

Version 2 was a more polished toolkit that started with a questionnaire about what challenge the team was setting out to solve. Based on that diagnostic, the toolkit prescribed a series of exercises that helped people tackle their specific problem. Instructions were simple and visual. The result was a series of stories where teams felt more empowered to take these types of challenges on alone.

The innovation toolkit has evolved further through experimentation across different organizations and use cases. What we’ve ultimately learned is that the innovation tool kit works best in conjunction with (1) a team that is genuinely committed to doing some of the work on their own and (2) a dedicated amount of remote coaching from a seasoned Propellerfish innovation leader.

If you’re interested in developing a toolkit for your organization, we’d love to share our experiences building innovation capability for organizations around the world.  Please get in touch here and someone from our team will get back to you within 24 hours.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.

6 Ways To Ground Front End Innovation In Back End Reality

Successful innovation first needs to make it to market. Too much front end innovation ignores the backend realities that dictate real success. Here are six exercises to help teams work backwards from the realities of getting innovation to market.

01. Start at the shelf

If you’re inventing a product, walk into a store and go to the shelf you’d like it to sit on with your team. Think through what it would take for the retailer to make room for your product on that shelf and design your journey backwards from there. Even better, engage your retailer on day 1 with the same question.

02. Solve it now

Ask your teams at the start of a project to solve the challenge in thirty minutes, present back, and then reflect on what aspects of their hasty solution makes them most nervous. Those areas of anxiety become a compass for where to focus future work.

03. Write your recommendation in reverse

If your project ends with a presentation to a set of gatekeepers, start your project by writing that presentation. Writing a complete presentation won’t be possible but understanding what knowledge gaps exist will give you a sense for the work ahead of you on a project.

04. Prototype the route to market

We helped an organization design a business unit that would work collaboratively with artists across a range of fields. One of our biggest questions from the start was how a large organization could successfully collaborate with smaller scale artists. To understand how to get this relationship right, we rented a loft in New York and brought everyone together, ranging from our ideal artistic partners to our multinational R&D teams. Together, they spent a day prototyping the 18 month process of co-creating a product and bringing it to market so we could foresee any implementation issues before they happened.

05. Interview gatekeepers first

All too often, we leave the limiting conversations to the end of a project. Having those conversations upfront can focus your team on the realities of back end implementation early on so your innovation is more likely to succeed in the real world.

06. Write The Press Release

Amazon’s “working backwards” process encourages product people to start by writing the press release they intend to use when the ultimate product launches. Once they feel they’ve nailed the press release, then they move forward with development of something they know the world wants.

Next time the complexity of a project feels overwhelming, align your team around what they’re setting out achieve. Then work backwards from that outcome prioritising the things that get you there. The result will be more energy on the things that matter and fewer distractions from the things that don’t.

Propellerfish is an innovation and insights firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead innovation projects with an eye on what it takes to get products and services to market.

Innovation Research

12 Things Great Innovation Research Does Differently

We’ve talked about how innovation teams need a different approach to research. Here are some tips we’ve learned to help you lead projects that deliver the richness of context innovation teams need in order to design products and services for the real world.


01. Higher resolution insight work calls for a mix of skills

Getting to higher resolution insights involves a different approach to insight work. It’s more iterative, requires more seasoned people on the ground to make decisions about how to pivot methodology when needed, it calls for more time spent with consumers in more intimate settings and it involves more energy towards pulling the full picture together after fieldwork is over. We will follow this article with a bit more detail on how to run those types of projects.

02. Start with hypotheses

Because innovation aims to deliver solutions, a good place to start is a hunch around what your team thinks a solution needs to do. We begin every innovation project with an understanding of our hypotheses, a sense for what we know that may be driving our hypotheses, and often some early solutions in the form of (intentionally bad) prototypes to probe more tangible around what a solution needs to do. These prototypes are not complete and we do not test them – we use them to learn and then throw them away. More on that later.

03. Use A Responsive Methodology

If you’re committing resources to conducting research, you’re probably know some things and don’t know others. Great researchers embrace the potential power what they don’t know and design a methodology that can respond as teams learn. The more you learn, the better your questions and methodology gets. Leave room in your methodology for your work to pivot and improve over the course of a project. As you learn, your questions become better, you discover people and things you hadn’t thought to explore. This is the secret to projects that come back with diamond quality transformational learning.
Alt: If research is worth doing, you are beginning the process with more questions than answers and probably have more unknown unknowns than you realise. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know and therefore it is difficult to design the perfect methodology from the start. If you design a methodology that evolves as you learn, you can structure your research project to get better, sharper and more insightful over time.

04. Learn in context and leverage context

We’ve talked about how innovation is contextual, run your research in the environments where your users operate, where purchase decisions get made, where your opportunity is at its peak, and where your solution is likely to be used. And while there, leverage that environment. If you run an in-home seated in the living room without actually exploring and interacting with the house, you will miss the opportunity to probe the specifics around how environment shapes behaviour and some of the clues that sit hidden in people’s environments.

05. Take Time To Get Close

The best insights come from getting close, but getting close takes time. We often interview people over Skype or FaceTime before scheduling our time in field. This lets us shortlist a set of respondents we want to spend more time with (hours, days, repeat visits). We then have the opportunity to dedicate the effort it takes to go deep with respondents we think will be the most interesting.

06. Take Breaks // Pause, reflect and pivot your methodology

Great insights come from taking time to pause, reflect on what was learned, and refocus your methodology periodically to ensure your learning gets deeper and richer as you go along. Racing through an insight process, especially where multiple countries over multiple weeks is concerned, runs the risk of learning missing hidden depths and forgetting the nuances you capture along the way without really landing them properly.

07. Think about users rather than consumers

(interaction verses passive) – this is a vestige of market research’s rooted in marketing where people were passive recipients of messages. Innovation is about understanding context and interaction regardless of whether you’re inventing a mobile device or a consumer snack.

08. Design for breadth and depth (aggregators // experts // groups // individuals)

Great insights come from starting broad and then going deep. At the beginning of an insight process, you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, there are likely some really important questions out there that you haven’t thought to ask yet. This is why Propellerfish starts the insight process with people who know more than we do about our consumer, our challenge or our opportunity. This means experts (people with deep expertise around an important topic), aggregators (people who encounter lots of the types of people we are designing for) and sometimes outcasts (people who are in conflict with the status quo around our topic and therefore have some useful insight into it). Starting with this breadth of perspective helps us get up to speed quickly by leveraging the expertise and perspectives of others in order to articulate the perfect questions before we go into field with our users.

09. Be Grounded In Reality

Research that aims to understand users in context and inform the design of real solutions should be designed around replicating reality as much as possible. This means running research with users in the actual environment you want to understand, using real prototypes to replicate real behaviours in understanding how to get a solution just right. A 2D sketch of a product meant to be used in a kitchen shown to consumers in a focus group facility is likely to generate little genuine insight if compared to giving consumers a rough 3D prototype they can use in an actual kitchen while we observe.

10. Be Local

“We are coming to you guys because we want to work with people who don’t think the obvious is interesting.”
Global projects come with a heavy risk of misinterpretation distorting valuable nuance through the lens of a team’s home culture. At Propellerfish, having lived in another country and (ideally) speaking another language is a key hiring criteria, especially when it comes to team members who will be spending time in the field. Having spent time in another culture makes people more sensitive to the biases that skew people’s interpretation. Still, having a local person on the ground is key to capturing a clear picture of how local consumers think and behave along with the relevant aspects of their environments that influence behaviour. Translators can be helpful here if they go beyond the task of translating people’s words and go a step beyond in terms of bringing the nuance of those words to life and pointing out any relevant context in the environment that we would want to understand.

11. Experiment: Make people do things

What people report about their behaviour and how people really behave can paint two different pictures of a particular interaction between your user and an opportunity or problem. A consumer might overlook an important part of an interaction in telling researchers about it because they take it for granted or have never noticed it before. Meanwhile, getting users to do things allows research to experiment with alternatives and interventions early in their learning process to understand which aspects of behaviours can be changed for the greatest impact in designing a successful solution.
Example: On a project aimed at designing snack packaging, we asked consumers to open snacks for us on camera before playing back the video and having them to comment on their behaviours. The result was a more nuanced look at what was actually happening and the ability to ask our users to comment on behaviours that would normally go unnoticed to them.

12. Show and tell

Innovation is a contextual practice and therefore great innovation research brings back a complete picture of the world around  an opportunity including deep insights into what motivates behaviour along with the various human and environmental factors that influence how a solution will work in the real world. As a result, innovation research doesn’t rely on words along but leverages photography and video in order to put some real world context around an opportunity and help solution designers keep that full picture in mind to create solutions that are useful in practice.
Finally, understand the roles and limitations of different types of research

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. Our teams lead insight projects rooted in a core belief that the best insights come from time spent close to real people in the real world.