Reaching out for help

Editor's note: Kelley Styring is consumer strategist at Newberg, Ore., research firm InsightFarm Inc.

In ancient Greece there was the oracle, the visionary, who could see the future. Today, we call people like Steve Jobs a visionary. But since Jobs possessed the means to make his visions come true, did he really see the future? I don’t think so.

As a market researcher, I know that I don’t control the future. Unless I invent a completely new research technique, I don’t actually create anything myself. Market researchers are advisors, nudging and cajoling organizations to act upon our insights. And while motivating actions based on insights has been my life’s work, I’ve often wished that my work felt less like a rearview mirror and more like a crystal ball. The occasions when market research creates actual foresight are so rare that sometimes we don’t even see them until fully immersed in the outcomes.

To take my own shot at glimpsing the future, I created a syndicated study called “One Handed World.” The study was inspired by the rise of the smartphone and the fact that we are all on the go and trying to get more done in less time. Our need for convenience and for products designed to accommodate our smartphone-driven, multitasking lifestyles is greater than ever yet precious little that we interact with each day has been designed to operate with only one hand.

Data gathered from consumers shows that they spend about 40 percent of their waking hours with one hand occupied (carrying groceries, using a cell phone, sipping a coffee, brushing their teeth, etc.) and about half of that time, they're interacting with a wide variety of other products and packages using a single hand or finger. This evolutionary trend means consumer product makers that don’t change their product and packaging designs accordingly could face economic extinction.

My study has found that one-handed convenience creates delight and engenders loyalty in consumers. A product that is easy to use with a single available hand creates a tremendous competitive advantage for itself. It also can boost profits, since consumers will pay a premium for convenience.

Isn’t exactly foresight

Yet, aside from measurement of existing and emerging behaviors, exploring this condition of one-handedness isn’t exactly generating foresight either. Again, it is measuring today or yesterday and trying to predict tomorrow. That’s interesting but not very inspiring.

Then I remembered trends toward developing skincare and styling products for an emerging group of men in the 1990s. They were called metrosexuals and they responded to grooming products differently from mainstream men at that time. The products themselves were not specifically developed for this trend, because this was an emerging market and not fully defined.

The target studied was an “extreme population” – meaning men who were deeply invested in grooming and committed to products that were not made for them but for women. By studying an extreme population and predicting that a trend would emerge, foresight was achieved. And this foresight was very motivating to beauty care companies looking to grow their businesses rather than just steal share from each other in the women’s market.

I started to think about one-handedness and reflect on my own struggles and triumphs. I recalled dropping a cell phone into an open cup of latté while driving. Utter fail. I also remembered not only finding a lipstick deep in the bowels of my purse but maneuvering to open it with one hand, not dropping the cap, applying it and recapping it all while talking with my mother on the phone. The Cirque de Soleil might have hired me after that audition.

As I pondered it more, I thought, who better to teach us about living in a one-handed world than arm amputees, who live elegantly and efficiently with only one hand, potentially providing us with a preview of this shift in overall consumer behavior?

But how could we reach into this culture and glean the right information? How could we conduct this study at all?

Social networks play a vital role

This is where social networks and communities played a vital role. It’s the difference between hunting and gathering. A typical market research study involves obtaining information from a broad sample – tailored at times to target groups but generally representing a large population. This gives us ample insight to drive mainstream businesses ahead. But to leap forward into foresight, we need to reach finite populations – those in the “new” space – those ahead of the pack. And this involves hunting.

In the past, to do a study of this nature, where you were seeking a small, finite population with unique characteristics, you’d have to screen hundreds of thousands of people by phone and arrange personal interviews to verify that they met the criteria (arm amputees) and collect information, video, etc. The effort would certainly meet the definition of finding a needle in a haystack and cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars and years to implement.

That was then. This is now. While it was not a simple effort, with technology and social networks it was feasible in a way it never has been before. Partnering with Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Bellomy Research, a community developer and technology provider, InsightFarm tapped into an insular population and built trust needed to gain access and collect information. Leveraging one contact to create three, three to create 10 and 10 to create hundreds, within a year the community was populated with enough amputees who trusted us enough to reveal the insight we could transform into foresight.

Using self-reported video diaries and the conversational interviewing the platform allowed, we were able to take our learning to a level not possible before this technology. We were not only able to create conversations of our own, meeting our objectives, but also listen as respondents discussed issues of their own concern, learning from their interactions. And these interactions themselves would not have been possible without the social networks and the technology in play.

In the community, we conducted quantitative measurement of difficulty interacting with more than 250 everyday products and packages, along with specific moments of interaction that are difficult and reasons why there is difficulty. The same measurements were made among the two-handed population for comparison, with many surprising findings.

Custom follow-up studies for subscribers were conducted, assessing new concepts for products and packages inspired by the third phase of the research. This continued access provided rich foresight for the companies involved.

It’s not the consumer, it’s the product

Overall, one-quarter of amputee respondents found everyday products difficult to operate with one hand, with the degree of difficulty increasing with the complexity of the task. I was stunned at the number of products that two-handed consumers reported difficulty opening or using – even when both hands were fully available. And they reported difficulties in the majority of the same categories as the one-handed consumers (Table 1), which means the issue isn’t with the consumer, it’s with the product.

Interestingly, this study suggests that arm amputees are actually more capable than two-handed people in this emerging one-handed world and as such, lead the way to the future of product and package design for everyone.

So, what’s a product or package designer to do? People evolve, and it’s time for products to evolve too. This isn’t about high-tech gadgets. In fact, this is even more important for low-tech products. Items people use every day – adhesive bandages, ketchup packets, tape, yogurt cups and more – could greatly differentiate themselves from competitors by being easier to use with one hand. (This concept is actually different from universal design, which provides access to everyday products and packages for those with special needs.)

While “hands-free” remains the gold standard for ease of use, that’s not always possible. Through our study, we developed 17 different innovation platforms designers can use to create or improve their products or packaging. For example:

  • One-handed stabilization and manipulation. With a product that requires one hand to do two different jobs – stabilize an item and manipulate it at the same time, such as opening a jar – can the palm be used to stabilize it while the fingers of the same hand open it?
  • “Toothiness.” Much to dentists’ dismay, the “third hand” is often the teeth. While it may be unsafe and socially unacceptable, teeth are being used to compensate for packages that are difficult to open. Designing packages to be opened safely and hygienically with the teeth could be paradigm-breaking, rather than incisor-breaking, for consumers.
  • Packages with predictable opening results. It doesn’t matter how many hands you have available to use if you can’t count on a particular package to open in exactly the same way twice. Consistency counts with, and creates delight in, consumers.

Community surged on

To me, one of the most interesting results of this project arose from social media tools we used. As the research came to an end, the energy of the community surged on. Our study actually brought people together with common needs and bonded them strongly enough that we transitioned the community to a new group on Facebook so they could keep interacting and supporting each other. We continue to moderate this closed group so they have a safe place in which to gather and we have access to them should future research questions arise, providing an ongoing benefit to everyone involved.