Identifying Product Opportunities

Inside Lenovo’s Design Quest
ZIBA Design’s search for the soul of the Chinese consumer

It doesn’t get better than this: the research from ZIBA Design for China’s biggest computer company, Lenovo. Managers striving to focus on the “fuzzy front end” of the innovation process should take note. At a time when you are launching all manner of ethnographic studies, ZIBA’s consumer research for Lenovo is among the best of its breed. It won a 2006 gold Industrial Design Excellence Award (IDEA) from the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Lenovo faces fierce competition in its Chinese home market from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), Dell (DELL ), and IBM (IBM ), which compete on price and status. Known for its innovative PCs, Lenovo wants to expand its lead in innovation and turned to ZIBA to help. We present here ZIBA’s raw consumer research, excerpted from the 2006 IDEA entry kit.

Find the Target Consumer: Innovate for Them Lenovo asked us to help them define product opportunities for their consumer divisions in desktop, notebook, and cellular so they could better compete on meaning and value. We needed to create an approach that captured the soul of the Chinese consumer and inspired Lenovo’s design teams. We needed to create new research tools to find out which design elements have meaning and value for specific groups of Chinese consumers. We provided Lenovo with a 36-month strategic product plan for each of its three consumer technology platforms. Because we were building a strategy, our design research had to create targets for idea generation and concept refinement.

Search for the Soul To create product experiences that connect with China’s consumers, the team needed to understand three cultures: China, users, and products. To build these connections, the team developed an approach called “Search for the Soul,” which integrates immersive experience (live-the-life), rapid ethnography, and method acting to uncover latent needs and wants.

Turn Insights into Experiences By bringing together a mixed group of social scientists, design strategists, and designers, we made sure our insights and ideas stayed aligned. Our design anthropologists uncovered the behavioral, sensory, and reminiscent needs of Chinese consumers. Design strategists packaged consumer insights for the design team, stressed the need for differentiation with competing products, and demanded relevance to the Lenovo brand. Designers worked closely with strategists to visualize the potential of every new product direction and to ensure that consumer insights were captured in exciting new designs.

Culture Starts Now Search for the Soul included jump-starting cultural immersion even before the team left for China. We studied the Chinese billboards and had the client send rock, pop, classical, and traditional Chinese music, which blasted in the war room. A professor of Chinese history was brought in to lecture on key cultural differences between the U.S and China. The team collected Chinese objects of desire — wallets, lighters, and cell-phone holders — and assessed their color, material, and finish properties. To connect with popular culture and messaging, we hired a Chinese exchange student to help interpret lifestyle and technology magazine articles and advertisements.

Live the Life There is no substitute for being there. The team split into two smaller groups, and both spent four weeks immersed in three different regions in China. Design anthropologists, design strategists, and industrial designers talked on cell phones as they commuted on bicycle with Beijing workers. They ate from street carts and dined on pig brain and pigeon in large banquet halls. They walked the ancient Hutong alleyways and sang late at night in karaoke bars. Observations and issues about use behaviors outside of the home were noted as the team rode buses and trains, wrote text messages in nightclubs, and used notebook PCs in Starbucks (SBUX ). Visual inspiration was drawn from fashion boutiques and electronics stores, from traditional gardens and modern architecture.

Find the Target The team leveraged demographic information from Lenovo on desktop PC, notebook, and cell-phone consumers. The team had to target the right psychographic group as well, given that Lenovo was looking to create platforms that would not just create buzz and die with early adopters but would achieve mass-market adoption and enhance brand image. The team developed psychographic screening criteria to target the “fast followers,” who are the first consumers to buy based on benefit rather than newness.

Home Visits Rapid ethnographies were conducted in users’ homes. The team toured areas of work, relaxation, sanctuary, and socializing in each household. We went into closets and gained an understanding of users’ fashion tastes. We hired a native interpreter. Nonverbal, visually engaging tools helped users communicate more freely, revealing thoughts and emotions.

To understand how users live and use technology, we developed an approach that let us squeeze two days of observation into two hours. Prior to the interviews, participants were given a camera, a glue stick, and two poster boards. We asked them to photo-document a weekday and weekend or leisure day, giving special attention to moments when they integrated technology into their routine. These visual time lines let us into their daily behaviors and emotions.

To identify opportunities for product integration (for example, a laptop that’s also a TV), we created a tool called MatchMaker. MatchMaker puts people in a defined-use scenario and lets them explore which products (depicted as icons) they would use in particular circumstances. When users chose multiple devices, MatchMaker helped us identify opportunities for convergent devices.

We developed a concept-building tool to define and understand what people want in terms of features and benefits. Features were grouped into categories such as space-saving, entertainment, input, and communication. Our goal was to uncover why users gravitate to certain categories and features.

After each rapid ethnography, the team used a brief download session to check their impressions against the client’s understanding of Chinese culture. This approach helped our client understand our generative and qualitative methods, and it helped us improve our knowledge of Chinese culture.

Cultural Immersion Through Images In China, the team collected images of furniture, cosmetics, fashion accessories, cars, and architecture. Back in the U.S., we launched a Web-based visual study with 400 Chinese consumers (100 for each of four newly identified consumer segments) to help inform the direction for the products’ visual expressions. We cropped the images so users would focus on the forms and details themselves rather than on associations with the brand or actual use of a recognizable object. The study asked users to match the diverse forms, details, patterns, and colors to the desired product attributes that had been identified for their particular user group. The study identified patterns in how Chinese consumers visually interpret product attributes.

Benefits, Not Features The goal of the evaluation was to determine how design could benefit Chinese consumers. The goal was not to determine a single direction but to identify which design elements are valuable. One-on-one qualitative evaluations were conducted with 40 consumers (10 per segment). The team identified four key benefits that people wanted from technology products. For example, we asked each user to rank the importance of “connecting with my friends” vs. “staying up on the latest business trends.” Making reference to models and sketches, the participants chose those concepts that best matched the benefits they sought and the design details that were driving their impressions.

Cultural Insight We learned that consumers in China generally do not make impulse purchases of large items. Rather, making large purchases (such as technology products) is a highly involved and researched decision-making process. The team used this knowledge to help elicit detailed feedback on product concepts. By asking consumers which concept they would be most interested in purchasing, then asking which design elements contributed to their positive or negative ranking, the team got a second read on how the concepts delivered benefits through different design configurations.

Find Visual Gaps in a Saturated Market The team first tried mapping Lenovo’s and its competitors’ offerings on a two-by-two matrix, but this approach failed. Competitive desktops, notebooks, and cell phones, in particular, had run the gamut of visual expressions. The team switched lenses and instead developed a new tool for visual analysis: MediaMapping. Research in China revealed that users see value in convergent devices (desktop PCs, notebooks, and cell phones) for their ability to help them perform specific media activities, such as gaming, photography, watching videos, and reading. MediaMapping allowed our team to identify visual cues that current Lenovo and competitive offerings were using to communicate proficiency in a particular media activity.

Move from Everyday People to Aspirational Tribes. Innovate for Their Needs When the team returned to the war room, they distilled the visual worksheets, photographs, and observations from each interview into a single Ethnography Inspiration Sheet. These sheets use pictures and captions to highlight emotionally the key needs of each user group and to expose the top observations and challenges each user faced. The Ethnography Inspiration Sheets were bound for the client, to give a raw, visceral view into the current market.

To connect emotionally with consumers, you can’t just design to their current baseline needs — you also need to connect with their aspirations. Using the Inspiration Sheets as the foundation, the team began to identify the aspirations, behaviors, and needs of distinct clusters. These clusters became known as “technology tribes.”

The five technology tribes identified were: Social Butterflies, Relationship Builders, Upward Maximizers, Deep Immersers, and Conspicuous Collectors. Each of these groups has vastly different needs, ranging from the need to connect to a broad social network (Social Butterflies) to the desire to seek escape through fantasy and immersion (Deep Immersers). These profiles gave us a creative springboard for concept generation and filters for evaluating concept relevance. Our creative team worked with Lenovo to gauge the size of each market segment.

To drive concept generation, the team used method-acting techniques to understand how, for example, a Social Butterfly would use a cell phone compared with how a Deep Immerser or a Relationship Builder would do so. Search for the Soul led to a clear understanding of who Lenovo’s target consumers ought to be (four primary tech tribes: Social Butterflies, Relationship Builders, Upward Maximizers, and Deep Immersers) and laid the groundwork to create product-line strategies for Lenovo’s desktop, notebook, and cellular platforms.

Deliver Actionable Insight The purpose of the evaluation was not to select a single product for each platform but to build insight into how users read benefits. The insights had to be actionable for the design team. We emphasized the need to communicate insights in the context of design elements. The result was a strategy that uses research-based insight to communicate visually the desired product benefits. If the team and the client wanted to enable Deep Immersers to escape into immersive fantasy games on their cell phones, the deliverable highlighted the appropriate design elements. Each concept was evaluated for its ability to communicate benefits to the consumer.

Understand, Then Innovate Our research produced a desktop PC for Deep Immersers, a notebook/tablet PC for Relationship Builders, and a cell phone for Upward Maximizers. The products address the unique needs of specialized customer tribes. The modularity of the multimedia desktop PC enables users to easily modify and upgrade their systems. The notebook/tablet PC makes sharing content with friends easy for Relationship Builders. The cell phone has a PDA and camera, giving Upward Maximizers the chance to multitask.

The definition of rich, psychographic tribes gave Lenovo’s senior management and marketing teams a common language and a common vision of the future. Our research gave them a defined segment map (based on behavior, attitudes, and values) to guide the development of appropriate products for target consumers. Future product lines are now organized around the needs of specific “tech tribes.” Our research gave Lenovo an understanding of Western approaches to creativity and markets. Within months of the completion of this project in 2005, Lenovo cemented its commitment to high-value design by acquiring IBM’s PC (ThinkPad) business unit.

So that’s how great consumer research is done. Can your company match it?

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