Despite the exponential leaps and surprising learnings each year in neuroscience, what remains certain is that one of the brain’s primary functions is to find patterns and make connections. Patterns help us simplify and quickly make sense of the constant barrage of data that is coming at our brains through our five senses. Being able to condense and filter information into patterns, and recognize those patterns, keeps us sane and safe. But with increasing pressure for companies and brands to rapidly innovate and adapt to emerging technology and changing customer expectations, relying on old patterns is anything but safe. So, how do you begin to do something differently when your brain is hardwired to fall back on the same patterns?
Patterns can help or hinder
Gestalt theory seeks to explain the perceptual processes that allow us to make patterns visually. These habits of mind have been a huge boon for graphic designers. For example, the IBM logo designed by Paul Rand in 1972 is comprised of 37 disconnected blue shapes; 35 quadrilaterals, 1 triangle and 1 irregular 13 sided shape. But when we look at the logo, our minds effortlessly make sense of these shapes. Using the proximity and similarity of the shapes, along with our past experiences, the brain groups the disconnected markings into familiar letters, allowing us to see exactly what the designer intended.
However, as design is increasingly a strategic driver in business, we find that we often have to help our clients work with un-curated data that needs to be grouped from many different perspectives because there are no ‘right’ groups. Like with the IBM logo, the first attempt to make meaningful groupings out of the data often relies on past experience. This is true both in the outlines that we believe are meaningful, like the Roman alphabet, and in the types of similarity or proximity that we can easily observe and believe are salient. In strategic efforts to understand areas of opportunity or market segments, this often takes the shape in easily identifiable demographics. These groupings are familiar because they have created meaning in the past. But for companies who want to innovate, they need a way to see new patterns and new groups that convey new meaning.
Patterns create “grooves” in our memories, making new paths difficult to chart. The patterns that protected us from harm and made sense of the world can often become evolutionary biases or personal or institutional habits of thought. Sometimes to see a new pattern, you need to disassemble the pieces, which is something anyone can learn to do. The design process allows us to suspend judgment long enough to consider, if not commit to, new formations that break the status quo. Below are three methods that frog uses to disassemble familiar groups and find new patterns that can lead to insights for opportunity and innovation.
1. Re-arrange: Understanding the underlying emotion
One method that we employ to see beyond expected patterns is an affinity diagram. Rather than organizing information around pre-existing categories, creating an affinity diagram allows common experiences and themes to bubble up out of the qualitative data collected from in-depth interviews. For those new to it, this can be a surprising and slow process but what emerges are groupings based on similarity and proximity of experience that no one on the team could have predicted.
For instance, in conducting research with breast cancer patients, we were surprised to discover which aspects of the process people found most difficult. Rather than the initial diagnosis, hair loss, surgery, the uncertainty of waiting for results, or the physical effects of treatment, participants cited the moment they had to tell their children as the most difficult. Understanding this, our client was able to provide better support resources around a largely ignored part of the patient’s experience.
Fears, motivations and misconceptions surface when asking the right questions, which can also help make sense of market data that seemed to point to irrational or inconsistent user behavior. We have new insight, not just into the what, but also the why. When companies understand the fears or changing motivations or incomplete mental models that dictate the actions of their customers or users, they can provide real value. Disassembling the familiar categories we use to understand customers, creates the opportunity to re-arrange the data and discover new and surprising groups.