IDEO is a “global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.” The company’s philosophy is simple but it’s nothing less than revolutionary: create better products by watching people actually using them.
Here’s a brief exchange between Kelley and 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose:
Charlie Rose: The main tenet is empathy for the consumer – figuring out what humans really want by watching them.
David Kelly: If you want to improve a piece of software, all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace and then correlate that to where they are in the software and you can fix that, right? And so the thing is to really build empathy, try to understand people through observing them.
Charlie Rose: In other words, their experience will communicate what you need to focus on.
David Kelly: Yeah. Exactly.
According to Kelley, a group of like-minded insiders sitting in a room trying to design something for outsiders will inevitably miss the mark, while a diverse group of creative thinkers paying close attention to how people actually use a given product will be far more likely to succeed. It’s the empathy with the user and the understanding of how they interact with the product that holds the key to innovation. (If you’re using a mouse right now, or one of its descendants, you are in direct contact with one of Kelley’s innovations – something he and his team developed for a young tech entrepreneur named Steve Jobs.)
As an arts professional, I couldn’t help listening to Kelley’s “grimace” comment without thinking of people reading arts marketing materials. We know the grimaces happen – arts marketing materials are among the least innovative and most grimace-worthy design products imaginable – but if we take some time to understand when, where and why those grimaces occur, we may be able to make our messages more effective.
I think arts marketing is long overdue for a human-centered design overhaul. The only way to know how to design effective marketing materials is to develop a deeply empathic sensitivity to the way our potential customers interact with our messages. If the grimaces occur as soon as they see the product or brand there may be no hope, but if potential customers start grimacing when they see the vanity shot of the tuxedoed conductor, the tedious welcome letter from the board chair, the hokey production shot from last season, the arcane academic jargon, the artsy wordplay, the hackneyed blurb, the hoary old clichés, the imperious ballerina in the tutu, the sterile architectural shot, the fawning society pics, the thrilling anniversary celebration, the endless barrage of vainglorious hype or the conspicuous absence of anything having to do with them, there may be some room for improvement.
Can human-centered design work on marketing materials? Absolutely. Brand and communications strategies are right up IDEOs alley. It’s true that most arts organizations can’t afford companies like IDEO, but there’s no reason we can’t start paying attention to how our marketing messages work – not the response rates or click-through rates they generate, but how potential customers engage, or fail to engage, with our strategic message content.
Imagine for a minute that your organization could afford IDEO and you hired them to put together a task group of independent auditors to watch a test group of young, culturally diverse people reacting to your marketing materials. What would the auditors observe? Where would the grimaces occur? What would this task group recommend to you after having seen the way new audiences react to your marketing messages?
The business world is rapidly embracing the idea that its products should be designed not according to what companies think they should be selling, but rather how customers want to use the products they sell. In the arts, we don’t necessarily want to change our products to meet the comfort and convenience expectations of our customers, but there’s no reason we can’t empathize with our customers’ attitudes and dispositions in order to improve the way we persuade them to participate.