In his book ”Hidden in plain sight”, Chipchase presents his methods and how companies use his observations to win customers, even in the most foreign markets and cultures.
His website is a wonderful and ever-changing collection of his snapshots and observation from criss crossing the world – China, Libya, Japan, Afghanistan... - in search of insights that can lead to better products.
It’s obvious: If you want to create suitable products, you need to know your customers well.
Jan Chipchase is probably the worlds leading consumer anthropologist. He has spent decades travelling the world doing consumer research for companies like Nokia, diving deep into local cultures, following consumers in their homes and at work. Today he is head of consumer insight at Frog, a leading American design company.
In his new book ”Hidden in plain sight”, Chipchase presents his methods and how companies use his observations to win customers, even in the most foreign markets and cultures.
The inspiration that Jan Chipchase collects is anything but linear and direct. Seeing a child by the roadside in Ho Chi Minh City selling gasoline to scooter drivers from a large bottle placed on a stack of bricks, and using a simple plastic hose to fill the scooters’ fuel tank, Chipchase realizes that this is the absolute minimum of what a gas station can be.
He uses the observation to start thinking about what a gas station would be like if it didn’t even sell gasoline. In an age of electrical cars, which can charged when people park at home or at their job, what services remain for the gas stations to deliver: bathrooms, food, car service, picking up parcels? How do gas stations make a difference when the gas is gone?
Noticing that in some places, consumers making a cup of tea will sniff the milk before they pour it into the cup, Chipchase starts wondering about the many ways that companies need to build trust in their brand by allowing users to ”sniff the milk” before they buy.
How to signal trust, reliability, status varies tremendously between cultures – and understanding how to meet the locate requirements and style of communicating quality is crucial – for instance, if you are selling milk, chicken or beer in China.
A Chinese example of building trust is the use of carpet mats in elevators, and seat coverings in taxis with the current day of the week printed on them – a way to show customers that this is a clean place.
One reason why Ebay has failed, but Taobao has succeeded in China, is that Taobao allows customers to put the payment into an escrow account at Taobao. Sellers know that the money has been deposited, but it will only be released, when the customer has received the goods and is satisfied with them.
No-one wants to be seen as disabled
A particularly interesting case, which Chipchase describes in his book, is the process, Nokia went through when it considered whether to create a handset specifically suited for illiterate users in developing countries.
Nokia has a very strong brand in developing and emerging markets. Of the more than a quarter of a billion phones it sells annually, a large part are the simplest and cheapest model, and millions of them are sold to people who are illiterate.
Chipchase and his colleagues did extensive research into how illiterate people use phones and services such as texting or receiving information. They realized that illiterates do not want to carry a phone, which clearly signals that they have no education. People have invented all sorts of work-arounds that allow them to use the phone despite not knowing letters and numbers, so for them, the most important factor was that the phone is cheap and reliable.
The surprising conclusion for Nokia was, that it would be better to continue selling one, really cheap phone, rather than developing and marketing a new model, which would inevitably be more expensive.
Therefore, Nokia decided to focus its efforts on designing little changes to the general interface that could help the illiterate.
Go out and live with people
A lot of Chipchase’s work has been helping Western companies understand what consumers in the emerging markets become willing to pay for as their buying power increases.
He repeatedly emphasizes that ”low-income people are in fact some of the worlds toughest customers. Because they have to make every rupee count, they can least afford to buy poorly designed products”.
”Hidden in plain sight” is also a bit of a manual. Chipchase describes how he and his teams start their scouting in a new location by finding local helpers – ”fixers” – often students, who can take them for tours, explain local quirks and set up meetings in private homes and companies.
Rather than staying at a hotel, Chipchase prefers renting a house for the whole team to live in, and he recommends renting bikes, to get a closer feel for the city’s flow and life. He likes to wake up early to observe the city coming to life; unfolding the functions, rituals and habits of everyday life.
Barbershops are one of the places he visits to get into conversations that go deeper than an outside observation. He confesses, that he has managed to take a shave twice in a day, just to meet more people.
It’s all about looking at the world with a systematically open and curious mind: Visiting people in their homes, sneaking a peek in their refrigerator and bathroom, joining them on their commute to work, studying what they carry in their pockets and bags, and asking why they carry it. Weeks of observations lead to a better sense of how people consume, in order to make their lives more convenient and maintain the social status they strive to express: whether it be through the use of mobile phones, banking services or deodorant and toothpaste.
In Bangkok, Chipchase found a shop selling false braces for teeth. The cheap braces obviously were not working, but they were worn by people who wanted to signal that they had the means to have their teeth straightened.
Find a problem and fix it
It becomes clear from the many examples in the book how blockbuster products and service have emerged, because someone realized, that there was an everyday problem, which could be fixed – but which, as the title of the book has it, had been hidden in plain sight.
A simple insight into how users behave allows designers to come up with improvements – big or small: Google understood that we often forget to attach files when we mail others, so in Gmail, if you use the word ”attach” in your message, and you don’t attach a file, the system will ask if you want to attach a file, before sending.
What’s suitable for customers is not always obvious, there is any number of ever-changing dimensions and variables to consider and weigh against each other. Jan Chipchase’s book will give readers a good introduction to some methods that can business choose with more precision.
Chipchase'sblog, future perfect, is a treasure trove of funny and thought provoking observations from around the world.