Me and My Shadow

Goal: Identify Your Customers’ Hidden Needs

Designers have a wealth of ideas on how their products can and should be used. These idealized notions keep competitors and quality assurance people in business, as designers never seem to include the idea that a cell phone makes a great door stop or that a remote-controlled toy dump truck is the best way to move your keys, wallet, and the TV remote across the room after you’ve had major knee surgery, or that the best way to soothe a crying baby is to put them on top of the washer or dryer. Of course, few of your customers will remember to tell you about these experiences. To learn about them, you need to watch your customer use your product on their terms, not yours.

The Game

Shadow your customer while they use your product or service. Literally, sit next to them and watch what they do. Periodically ask them “Why are you doing that?” and “What are you thinking?” Take along a camera or camcorder and record key activities. Ask for copies of important artifacts created or used by your customer while they are doing the work.

Why It Works

This technique is one of many that falls under the broad category of ethnographic research. Ethnographic research is an incredibly powerful way of understanding your customer, but it comes with a catch: It is very hard to observe your customer in such a way that your observations don’t change how they work, kind of like the Heisenberg principle applied to people. That’s why the name of this game emphasizes thinking of yourself as a shadow so that you can minimize any negative interactions caused by your observations.

Sophisticated applications of this technique are based on specially selected customers being asked to perform activities while being studied in specially constructed observation rooms. While this can be an extraordinary way to uncover hidden requirements, the process is expensive and the setting tends to be artificial. Me and My Shadow works best when you can observe your customer in their native habitat.