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Strategic Design

Making Active and Innovative Use of Your Customer Base


Business cases. The National Gallery of Denmark was one of the business cases in the Active Users project. Design researchers and students from the Aarhus School of Architecture studied what sort of welcome and information the museum offers its visitors. Photo: National Gallery of Denmark
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Companies are keen to get in touch with their customers and users in order to gain new ideas for products and business potentials. A project headed by the Danish Technological Institute focuses on user types that are potentially valuable for business. The conclusion is that the key lies in getting involved, identifying the company’s needs and involving the right users at the right time in the strategic processes.

By Anna Krarup Jensen

‘Lead users’ are one step ahead. Driven by their own needs, they come up with ideas for new products or services. Many companies look to these users for inspiration and ideas. That is wise, as their inventions might be potential gold mines once they are commercialised. But companies miss out on good and valuable ideas if they focus exclusively on connecting with the ‘inventors’ in their customer base. 

Other user types hold similar innovative potentials, provided you know when and how to involve them in your business, says Project Manager Signe Skov-Hansen of the Danish Technological Institute, who headed the Active Users project.
“For example, many companies already have a service hotline or an e-mail address for ideas and complaints. But how do you turn that into something useful? The companies need to understand their own innovation needs better,” she says.  

The company might need to rethink its complaints procedures, for example, to stop viewing the complaints as a source of irritation and instead as valuable user input.
“A good example is the computer giant Dell, which now has appointed their number one complainer to community manager,” says Signe Skov-Hansen and adds, 
“None of the companies involved in the Active User project have gone that far yet, but they have benefited from working actively with the user types.”

Adding to the Strategic Toolkit

In addition to the case companies, several research institutions have taken part in the Active User project. One of them is the Aarhus School of Architecture; Associate Professor Jørgen Rasmussen describes the school’s contribution:
“In workshop events involving companies we looked at the possible practical applications of the user types. In what situations are they meaningful? The point is knowing when to involve the individual user, and how.”

Jørgen Rasmussen studies strategic design, and to him, the results of the Active User project add new tools to the strategic Toolkit.
“They are tools for management to rethink products and business opportunities. In a strategic design process we use a variety of tools or methods. The Active User typology lets us use the methods on different types of people too. That makes a lot of sense,” Jørgen Rasmussen explains.

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User involvement. In interviews, some of the visitors to the National Gallery of Denmark said that the facade of the museum gave a closed-off, uninviting impression. Therefore, one of the suggestions from the design students was that the museum design a ’showcase’ that could be put up in front of the museum or on sites around the city.
Design proposal: Matteo Martin A. Santori, Tine Ottesen, Suzanne Nørholm and Anne Blomqvist from the Aarhus School of Architecture.

Who, When and How?

In the project, the users are divided into four categories: lead users, inventive users, passionate professionals and commentators. The project has identified how, when and to what extent the various user types can best be involved in the company’s development processes.

  • Commentators
    Characteristics: Offer value judgments of what is good and bad, make ongoing comments in dialogue forums and typically do not perceive themselves as innovative or creative. 
    Motivation: Being heard, commenting on other people’s comments.
    Engaging these users: Offer feedback rather than dialogue, preferably in a scalable form, such as points or stars; offer valuable input in the test and launch phases, for example via questionnaires or online forums.
  • Inventive Users
    Characteristics: Have many ideas, often radical and novel, but do not always get very far with the individual ideas; share and develop ideas with their close networks; perceive themselves as creative.
    Motivation: Social interaction and acknowledgement of own inventiveness. Often offer ideas in a wide range of fields and product and service areas.
    Engaging these users: Dialogue and brainstorming – preferably in temporary communities involving other users, for example via the company’s marketing channels or website.
  • Passionate Professionals
    Characteristics: Ideas often spring from professional contexts and are shared in professional networks; willing to spend resources on developing ideas.
    Motivation: Professional identity and own core competences.
    Engaging these users: Use professional networks in relation to the company’s end-users, and cooperation partners as well as competitors.
  • Lead Users
    Characteristics: Often work autonomously and frequently see their ideas reach the commercial stage, have ideas sooner than the average user and develop complete solutions. 
    Motivation: Own needs and a dissatisfaction with the existing products they use.
    Engaging these users: Professionals in the company should act as sparring partners.

Know the Needs

Many companies tend to see the lead users as the best users to get in touch with. But that is not the point of the Active User project.
“In practice, lead users make up a very small share of the population, and there is no guarantee that a company can even use input from lead users, because it takes time, and the ideas might be demanding to implement. Instead the company has to know its own needs: What is it they need to know? And they have to know what degree of engagement and input they can expect from the various user types,” she explains. “And that is something that the Active User tools can facilitate.”

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Workshop. Project Manager Helene Brøndholt Nielsen from the National Gallery of Denmark (left, in back) in an intensive dialogue with three design students from the Aarhus School of Architecture. It is important to ensure commitment and buy-in to the ideas to make them viable.
Photo: Birgitte Geert Jensen

Open Dialogue

Together with Associate Professor Birgitte Geert Nielsen and a research assistant from the Aarhus School of Architecture, Jørgen Rasmussen was responsible for two workshops. One was a one-day workshop where managers from five of the companies involved in the project met with design students for a dialogue and idea generation process. 
“That led to entirely new perspectives. In this context, we could be perceived as inventive users. We informed a process with a new mindset. Now it’s up to the company managers to take the ideas in and find a way to implement them,” says Jørgen Rasmussen and adds, 
“It was an interesting process, and it was a new experience for the companies to have an open dialogue face-to-face with the design students.”

New Organisation at the National Gallery of Denmark

The other workshop headed by the Aarhus School of Architecture was a two-week process with the National Gallery of Denmark. Here the school’s researchers and students took a more conventional approach, interviewing visitors and staff and carrying out observations at the museum. The key issue was the experience of the museum lobby, where visitors find practical information and are introduced to the current special exhibitions, the café, the bookstore etc.
“One of the results of our surveys was that no one at the museum had the overall responsibility for the lobby and for what sort of welcome visitors encounter,” says Jørgen Rasmussen.

The National Gallery subsequently changed the organisational position of the Service section to ensure a more holistic treatment of the lobby. Thus, the workshop is an example of a strategic design process.
“We informed a strategic process. Our contribution led the museum to restructure, not just to put in a new service desk or change the interior design,” he explains and adds, 
“By using the typology actively it is possible to develop a company’s strategy and value set. But an active and strategic involvement of the user types requires a much more comprehensive effort than our two workshops.”

Buy-In to the Process

Strategic design processes are not like other design processes. They are about people, not about product maturation, Jørgen Rasmussen emphasises. Therefore it is essential to ensure buy-in to the ideas.
“If there is not enough buy-in from the people who are charged with the subsequent implementation phase, the processes may run aground. Everyone is busy, so there has to be a certain drive and an understanding of why the process is important,” he explains.

Signe Skov-Hansen from the Danish Technological Institute agrees that the methods presented in the Active User project require commitment from the companies.
“When a company works with user-involving methods, it should allocate the necessary time and resources and engage actively in the process,” she says and adds that in return, companies stand to reap great benefits from involving the users actively in innovation processes.

Active Users

The project ran from 2009 through 2011. It was headed by the Danish Technological Institute and was carried out in cooperation with Aarhus School of Architecture, Copenhagen Business School, University College UCC and the companies GAFFA, Copenhagen Wholesale Market, Advice Digital, Wexøe, Kailow and HH-Ferries and the National Gallery of Denmark.

The overall goal of the project was to contribute to Danish companies’ competitiveness by integrating user involvement in the companies’ innovation process.

You can read more about the project on the website of the Danish Technological Institute (in Danish only).

The Four User Types

The project resulted in a typology with four user categories: Commentator, Inventive User, Passionate Professional and Lead User.

You can read more about the four user types and about how to involve them in the publication Active Users (pdf, 5 MB) (in Danish only).


Mind Design #46, 2012


Edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research

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