Understanding the ‘Why’ Behind Behavior and Needs Can Allow you To Position Sustainability Initiatives for Success

May 3, 2018

We all have our own internal view of what matters in life. This, says Michael Barry of Quotient Design Research and Stanford University, who led a masterclass with Sonia Baltodano and Michelle Jia at SPC Impact called Designing Systems for Survival, means that people’s needs are radically different from each other. Not only do we often fail to recognize that needs differ wildly we also have a really hard time seeing those needs in the first place. Finding people’s needs, and taking those needs seriously, is essential for a product’s or service’s success. Barry began the session by telling us that only 1 in 1000 products succeed!

Sustainability isn’t a product or a service (or is it? ????????), but as a participant in this session I challenged myself to apply Barry and team’s framework to sustainability initiatives. Why do some succeed and some fail?  

According to Barry, you have to break through inertia (“we did this thing last so the next one should be the same, but 2x”) and trying to use marketing to coast over stagnant growth (“they aren’t buying it so let’s do more commercials to convince them that they need it!) in order to get to, and find, people’s true needs so you can succeed. His firm Quotient Design Research and team at Stanford University’s d.School calls this process and state of mind “needfinding.”

Needfinding is all about seeing the water around you, as if you are a fish to reference an allegory from David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement speech. It’s hard to see the water because it’s so obvious. But the water keeps you alive; it’s composed of the most important things in your life. “The most important things in your life [the water] are invisible… until they break.” By seeing the water, you see needs. But to see the water, you have to jump out of it. Or you can also see it by playing or experimenting with it (blowing bubbles?); or, you could ask others (your fish friends) about it.

The problem is that it’s hard to get people to tell you what they need. It’s also hard to just briefly glance around and speculate on what they might need. This is where empathy comes into play, according to Barry. “You have to go beyond mere observation and data.” Big data, he says, gives you a big picture but it doesn’t tell you why people are doing the things they’re doing.

What you have to do, then, is consider problems from a specific person’s point of view. There was a solar energy client that Barry worked with: the solar panels had amazing technology that was a true step above the competitors’. But, sales weren’t where they expected them to be. They learned it was because customers were reporting that the panels were actually a pain to install; it took days to put them on roofs instead of a few hours, the standard length of time. The scientists who developed the panels were perplexed by thisthey just couldn’t understand why installing them fast and easy wasn’t an incredibly straightforward task; they thought of the installers, “you must be stupid.” In contrast, the installer’s perspective was, “I’m not stupid; you’re out of touch with reality.”

And so what did they do? They had the scientists try to install the panels themselves. The situation got real, real quick! Of course, in a glorious moment of poetic justice, the scientists fumbled and could barely install the panels, on the verge of meltdowns during the process. Until the scientists had that empathy, and context, they were blind to the user’s (their customer’s) needs. It’s easy to start to try to find solutions by defining the problem, but if you add empathy and design perspective, it allows you to understand problem from perspective of people who actually experience that problem. That’s where the realer solutions lie.

Barry explained that when we experience headwinds, what we sometimes do is try to train out bad behavior (“just put up videos on the solar company’s website to teach them how to install panels”) because we think we know what’s best. But what’s really important to do is understand the complexity in each other’s worlds. “If you’re banging your head over and over trying to find a solution, then maybe you have the wrong problem,” he explains.

Other places where you can find needs is through people’s stories and through their actions. Barry says be careful, though, not to satisfy one need but mess up another. That’s because needs are part of a complex system. Often, the parts of a system don’t understand the whole system or don’t understand other parts of a system.

Recognizing those complexities of the system, and seeing the water, is a way for us to recognize opportunity. Opportunities create new value (someone always needed this ‘thing’ but no one was paying attention) and/or allow us to change behavior (because you’ve satisfied a need). This requires both empathy, but also a point of view. You use empathy to get to the point of view. You do that by asking what is the meaning behind the need, and how is the ‘use’ of the thing not fulfilling the need?

The next time you’re trying to push through a sustainability initiative inside your company or trying to persuade another to follow your initiative: ask yourself, are you exercising sufficient empathy to understand the user/audience’s true needs? Are you painting a broad brush of your audience when actually there is a lot of inconsistency/diversity of viewpoint inside of your audience? Is your offering actually fulfilling the need, either through the way it’s used or the meaning behind it? Have you considered the context of your offering and how your offering may relate to other offerings? Considering these questions thoughtfully — and not being afraid to experiment or play, and to test your ideas in the real world context — is what can help you design sustainable systems.

Big thanks to Michael Barry, Sonia Baltodano (CEO of Scrapworks), and Michelle Jia of Quotient Design Research for blowing our minds in this 3 hour masterclass in San Francisco that covered way more than what’s described above: how to turn data into new perspectives, what convenience really means, and how we underestimate the tools available to us. To learn more about their fun & helpful work, look here and here.