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Needs-based design

How to get to know your target group and analyse their needs

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How can you come up with products today that position themselves on the market almost of their own accord because they fulfil a useful purpose, solve a problem or satisfy a particular need? The better you and your company understand your target group, how they think and what drives them, the easier it will be for you to position your new product or service on the market.

We spoke with Miriam Schmalen, Senior Service Design Consultant at the digital agency Plan.Net, about her insights into service design and needs-based design

A group of people creating a journey map.

Direct communication and lots of different perspectives: This is the key to a successful product. (Photo: UX Indonesia, Unsplash)

What exactly is service design?

What is service design really about, and what exactly does it have to do with needs-based design? Experts write whole books on this subject, and if we were going to take a deep dive into the topic, we’d need to make some more distinctions here. But in essence, both service design and needs-based design are firmly based on a target group’s need, and they can make the crucial difference between a successful product and an also-ran item.

“For products to survive in the market, they must create tangible added value. People don’t consume blindly any more. There is a diversity of offerings. The end customer chooses something that creates a particular feeling and really solves a problem, helps them and has a big, complex service behind it,” explains Miriam Schmalen. “The customer used to come to you and say, ‘I need an app,’ and then you’d start designing pretty quickly. But for me and other strategic disciplines, the process begins two steps before this: It starts with understanding. This is where you analyse the fundamental business problem and the customer’s need. During this process, it’s important to zoom in on the target group and define it – often, it’s not clearly identified at all. This is the first stage in the process, and it’s a crucial one. I start by sitting down and tryin

It’s essential to understand the customer and their needs so that you can respond with a relevant solution and don’t just put any old rubbish on the market.”

Miriam Schmalen
service design expert at the digital agency Plan.Net

The target group is the be-all and end-all

“One frequent problem is that a company says it knows its target group really well. But often it is very vaguely conceived and based on stereotypes,” says Schmalen. “It’s not enough to simply say: ‘We’re here for the empty nesters.’ What does that mean? Empty nesters is a concept developed thirty years ago. What is an empty nester like today?” But even that is still far too simplistic and uninspired for Miriam Schmalen. In her view, a target group is about much more. “Service design and needs-based design aren’t just design. There’s a lot of sociology and psychology in them, too. How does a society think? How does a human brain work? How can you capture people emotionally? How does perceptual psychology work?”

But marketing, target group analysis and target group segmentation are just as important for Miriam Schmalen: “We know more or less what a target group analysis is: They’re generally younger or generally older, generally women. Segmentation is then about being specific: They’re generally older, but how can they be differentiated? To do so, you define the relevant criteria. The target group analysis and the target group segmentation are things that must be done fairly precisely so that you can draw insights from them later.”

Where there’s a need, there’s a market

But knowing the target group is just half the battle. To really succeed in a market, you have to take the target group and use it to identify a specific need. But how can you do that? “Only through conversations,” says Schmalen. She is a firm believer in this. “Most companies would naturally rather do quantitative research. They look at their analytics and see: Who lands on the page? How much time do they spend there? Or they do simple online surveys. But the problem with this is that if you just do analytics – like most companies do it – then these are purely hypothetical interpretations. You see movements; you see numbers; you see what a person is doing and where. But you don’t know exactly why it’s happening. That’s why, in many research areas, you should ideally do both – quantitative research and qualitative research – such as interviews.”

When it comes to this method, many of Schmalen’s clients have questions at first: Will we really get something out of speaking to ten or twenty people? Her answer is essentially always the same: “Yes, if they’ve been precisely segmented because we’ll definitely find out the key insights. And then you look at any analytics with completely new eyes because you know exactly what the target group’s problem is, what their everyday lives are like, and why these users sometimes go online briefly at one in the morning and then at other times they’re back online again for ages at around ten in the morning.”

A workshop: different people writing on Post-its.

A group workshop with your customers might look like this. Together, you immerse yourselves in very different perspectives – but always in the user’s role. (Photo: Fortytwo, Unsplash)

It’s all about communication

The best way to do this and find out the relevant information is clear for Schmalen: “The key thing is that you don’t always need huge amounts of research. But talking to the users – that’s what it’s all about.” For the service design expert, a few methods are especially suitable for this: “For example, inviting your employees and customers to get together for a workshop and giving them a chance to speak to each other. Afterwards, the customers get a voucher or another benefit; in exchange, your employees get a real aha moment. It’s often a real eye opener for employees to be so close to the customers. Of course, you might invite just ten customers, but spending a day with precisely segmented customers and asking them questions is definitely much better than always just working inside the box.” Schmalen explains why all this can be so useful with an example from her own career. “If you’re an interior designer who specialises in kitchen furniture, then go into people’s kitchens with them. Give things a try. Create contexts in which people can try your kitchens out. I used to do a lot of work for a big dairy brand. I went into end customers’ homes, looked in their fridges and cooked with them. At the end, we realised that many of them were using the brand’s yoghurt to improve things such as sauces. The company didn’t know this before. It’s from precisely this kind of situation that many of these important insights come.”

Simply talk to each other

There will never be a magic formula for successful needs-based design. The target groups, their needs and wishes, and the touchpoints are too different. But there is one common theme: communication. No analytics tool in the world can give businesses the kind of insights that talking to the target group directly can offer them. Being close to the target group is the key to the success of a good and relevant product.

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