on November 25, 2014 Innovating with Design Thinking

How Mobile Missions Can Help Innovators Fill Knowledge Gaps


We'll discuss how to use mobile missions to gather consumer insights. This type of consumer research helps lay the ground work for the design thinking process.

“What people say, what people do, and what people say they do are entirely different things.”  --Margaret Mead


Using Observation to Fill in Knowledge Gaps

In her talk on Ethnography at TEDx Broadway, researcher Ellen Isaacs describes the fundamental importance of observation to the process of innovation. She notes that so many things we now take for granted (including the very basic feature of an icon on a desktop) were once unknowns. They were gaps that needed to be filled, and in order to understand what would truly be effective, designers had to look at existing technology and imagine something radically different (design thinking at its finest!). She then goes on to describe the ethnographic process used by Xerox PARC scientist Lucy Suchman, who believed that direct observation of people using different technology would reveal gaps in user experience. Prior to Suchman’s studies ethnography--an approach to studying culture through the lens of the subject being studied rather than as an outside observer--was largely confined to academics.   

Using Observation to Understand how a Product is Received

Isaacs shows a clip from the videotapes that Suchman used to record her colleagues--world famous computer scientists--as they struggle through the process of photocopying documents. Isaacs goes on to explain that observing behavior, rather than interviewing a subject, often provides greater insight into the way a product is truly received. The gap between what we really do everyday and what we say we do can be quite large; think about the your day… can you accurately recount what happened and how you felt from hour to hour? Minute to minute? Experience to experience?  

The Mobile Missons exercise is a basic ethnographic research method --it allows consumers to directly capture and record their own experiences and observations without interference. Unlike the Day-in-the-Life exercise, Mobile Missions encourage people to record experiences over a set length of time. Here’s how the exercise works:

Start with Objectives and Designate a Place for Collecting Research

It’s incredibly important to clearly define and state your objective. Batterii users can use Project Rooms to create an interactive space, establish the goal of the research, and create a mission statement for each room. In Suchman’s research, she identified a clear activity for her colleagues: to photocopy documents. Isaacs also describes her own research of parking in the city. Both are remarkably simple prompts, but they identified an area where consumers feel a large degree of dissatisfaction, meaning there's an unmet need. Isaacs stresses observations made in ethnographic research often seem obvious once they’ve been made, but they must be stated for ideation to take place.

Invite Consumers

In the Batterii mobile app, manual accounts give users limited access to your project, and Mission texts can help guide them when they are in the field.  As with the other user-based exercises, it’s important to field subjects who reflect your user pool. Be specific and conscientious about the people you recruit for this exercise. Make sure they are people who will actively capture content, regularly post inside of the Project Rooms and include descriptive tags with their posts.  

Manage Engagement and Analyze Assets

On the back end of the exercise, be sure to communicate with the consumers on a regular basis. These interactions help build rapport with your users and can also enhance their overall experience with the project. As photos, videos and notes come in, organize them using the tags in each Project Room, and begin to sort walls to group key themes that are emerging. In Isaacs’ work, her research teams discovered a specific need for signage that is more clear about where people can park and when. Finding and understanding these gaps leads to the final step: Create Insights. Select one or multiple assets to compose into a consumer learning that can be shared with the team.

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Julia Wheeler

10+ year digital media, marketing and action sports veteran. Digital marketing freelancer. Lifestyle blogger since 2008. Writing here about technology, innovation and design.