Why objectivity is your most powerful business tool

Margaret Paton

Start-ups, take notice. Some of you are too subjective and it’s destructive.

Neoteny founder, 32-year-old Michelle Gilmore, can tell you why. Her six-year-old global creative experience company is using evidence-based industrial design thinking for clients such as the ATO, Etihad Airways, National Australia Bank, ABC, Tourism Australia and Woolworths.

“We work with corporates, non-profits, start-ups and government to help them understand human behaviour and how their products and services are really going to fit into people’s worlds and get most value,” she says.

“It’s so emotional being in business. I’ve had a series of coaches to get me to that level of being objective. I wish someone had told me this when I was 25.”

Gilmore says objectivity is a “really powerful mindset” particularly for start-ups that need to design for the consumer, not for themselves. Founders are too much on the inside – they’re “experience mobsters” who can’t be their own consumer.

“You see it happening again and again, particularly with under 30 start-ups. They’re so emotional, so attached, they can’t disassociate themselves from their own product or service when they are not the user. They’re making personal taste choices. If you look at every success story, they have been able to be objective.

 “Rationalise your decision outside of yourself. If you were my client and I’m designing this product for you, you could ask why did I decide that. If I say, I thought it was really cool, I liked it, that’s not an acceptable response to why you’re paying me.”

It takes a “huge amount of discipline” to be objective, she says. Subjectivity is destructive in a commercial context – it doesn’t work. She clarifies she’s not talking about artists.

As an industrial design student, she was taught to be subjective, use ‘I’ language and put her personal opinion on the line to really sell an idea.

“What I realised quite early on was that if I was going to have a design company that was going to help businesses to actually achieve commercial outcomes, I would have to learn to be an objective designer and to foster an objective design environment,” says Gilmore.

She finds her evidence by going out to understand her clients’ customers. That means rigorous qualitative and quantitative almost ethnographic research – broad reaching interviews and surveys. It’s not the other big data; it works in tandem with big data, complementing it, she says.

“You see it happening again and again, particularly with under 30 start-ups. They’re so emotional, so attached, they can’t disassociate themselves from their own product or service when they are not the user. They’re making personal taste choices."

Everyone’s capturing data about customers, so it’s not really a competitive advantage, but when you use it to personalise the customer experience, you’re giving them something back. It’s a two way currency, and that’s the competitive advantage, according to Gilmore.

“The key here is that we are moving into a new level of intelligence where customers are expecting a response from interfaces. If they are in digital spaces, interacting and giving their time, the interface will respond and change with their behaviour. It’s not something you have to be tech savvy to understand.”

Recently she delivered a presentation to the ABC board along side the ABC’s marketing team.

“The team had the big data on everything. They know their audience. I spent four days with 50 people and together we put forward a strategy, we use the qualitative insights, the why, and the quantitative, the what. The organisation understands the data, but don’t understand why it’s happening or how to translate that and understand the next move … connect the dots.

“For the Tourism Australia research, we shadowed people coming to Australia by going to five countries in six months. I haven’t heard of a lot of designers doing that breadth of bold behavioural research at a global scale. Getting a slice of the market and trying to bring it back and make sense of that.”

That insight drives their designs, websites, apps, physical spaces and products acting as ‘touchpoints working together” to deliver results for clients.

For the Australian Tax Office, the goal was to design what the five-year plan for interacting with customers would look like.

“What it will look like in 2020 to do your tax from filling in a form to interacting with the website or making a phone call?” says Gilmore.

Better ways of connecting with customers include changing the hierarchical order of the data, the format (video over image or local over international news depending on customer preferences) or transforming the interface itself. That could mean in a travel context, those in a group have a ‘collaborate’ button; those travelling solo would not.

Gilmore and her team have been talking publicly at conferences and networking events about their approach and have up to five start-ups they will launch within the next six months.

“We’ll also be teaching [our approach] in the future to train organisations and other designers. We always welcome opportunities to raise this level of debate.”

Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely for corporations/government departments and more than 100 online/hard copy mastheads in regional NSW, Sydney, Melbourne and Europe.

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