Customer Insight

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Visual Thinking for Customer Centricity

By Stuart Young, Innovation Practice Lead at Radtac

90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, so isn’t it time you opted for a simpler and quicker way to tell a compelling customer story in a way that will stick? The written word alone can create a level of uncertainty and ambiguity. This is where the power of visualisation can play a fundamental role.

Visual thinking is becoming ever so popular yet there is still so much untapped potential when it comes to talking about customers, communicating about the customer experience, and designing improvements. In this article I want to make the case to bring a visual angle to your view of the customer, and how you can enhance communication with your colleagues.

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Why visualisation?

As a design graduate, well versed in methods of Design Thinking and Agile ways of working, I make use of visualisation techniques to support working groups to cultivate group learning through pictures whilst encouraging others to take to the flip chart and draw.

That’s right — you don’t need to have a design degree to visualise. When we talk about visualisation what we are really talking about is visual literacy.

As children we are often introduced to literature in the form of picture books and learn how to associate the pictures with meaning by navigating the pictures on a page way before we learn to read and write. So when we refer to visual thinking we are describing our ability to interpret, comprehend, and express ideas by using or creating visuals.

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Visual Thinking can play a significant role in accelerating learning, solving problems and generating ideas.

A shared language

If I asked you to draw a house right now the chances are you would draw 2 windows either side of a door and a smoking chimney regardless of whether you actually have a house with a chimney or windows. This is because you are conditioned to draw using a universal language, a language that you have used since you were a child. This universal language enables working groups to collaborate effectively. You can imagine how powerful this is when visualising such things as a customer journey, moving away from abstractions that can be created with the written word and finding a level of alignment.

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Blending Visual Thinking and Design Thinking

It’s no surprise that the best products, services and customer experiences can only be designed around the basic needs, aspirations, emotions and motivations of your end users. Far too often an organisation focuses on maximising delivery with technical enhancements that are both feasible and viable from a business perspective yet fail to tick the desirability box. In certain situations Agile teams might also be guilty of maximising delivery and building the ‘thing right’ yet failing to build the ‘right thing’?

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to technology.” - Steve Jobs

The first stage of Design Thinking focuses on discovering a sense of understanding towards the people that will use your products and services. This discovery phase requires an element of ethnographic research which can take the form of dreary documentation or engaging visuals that paint a clear picture of customer needs. Fortunately, there is a range of visual thinking tools at your fingertips.

Dave Gray’s Empathy Mapping and Strategizer’s Value Proposition canvas help teams to collectively delve deeper into the behaviours and motivations of end users. The beauty of templates such as these is that they embrace both divergent and convergent thinking, offering individuals the opportunity to share unique ideas whilst aligning a group on a specific theme. Much like a framework binding what a group is thinking about without influencing what is presented by each individual.

It will be no surprise for you to hear that visual thinking techniques can be explored at every stage of the Design Thinking Cycle and embedded as a common practice within Agile teams. From the creation of rough low fidelity sketches and prototypes to test and validate design ideas, to the use of graphic metaphors and templates during team retrospectives. Whatever the method the key motivations for visual thinking remain to generate ideas and solve problems, offering fast effective feedback and learning.

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Storyboarding for communication

An increasingly popular Visual thinking business tool is creative storyboarding, which can be used to aid team alignment, gain stakeholder engagement and keep the customer at the heart of product and service creation. Most commonly linked to comics, storyboards expand on the use of visual narration, where pictures trump words as a more favoured method for conveying information. Whilst comic art and storyboarding have evolved somewhat since their birth at the Walt Disney Studio in the 1930s, they still remain an essential tool for story sequencing and elaborating ideas before investing in producing physical products and services.

The beauty of a storyboard is the way a reader will naturally follow the flow of information from left to right and top to bottom, narrating a process or journey from beginning to end. You must ask yourself what are the most salient points you wish to communicate with an audience, and what the key milestones are that you need to identify along the journey. Having a limited number of frames at your disposal is a helpful control measure and a powerful way to emphasise vital information.

“Your story’s moments should be like a dot-to dot puzzle. Remove one dot and you change the shape of the story.” - Scott McCloud

So if you are faced with a user experience problem or a potential issue with a current process, introduce storyboarding within your teams for a clear and captivating way to present a business need and solve a customer problem.

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Storyboarding a Customer Journey

You guessed it, what better way to visualise a customer journey than a visual storyboard?

In the fields of user experience, service design and design thinking, storyboarding is applied as a way of recognising the needs of an end user. By building a picture of your customers' experiences you can walk through current customer journeys frame by frame, and identify key pain points which can become levers for change leading to desirable products and services. This approach can be explored throughout the fruition of a product lifecycle from gaining customer insight, to testing the experience of a new feature. Inspecting, adapting, pivoting and persevering based on the needs and motivations of your customers.

Useful Tips

Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the power of visual thinking to improve your understanding of customers, and communicate persuasively with your colleagues.

If you want to get started here are my top 3 tips:

  • Communication over decoration - it’s not about creating a masterpiece
  • Simplicity is key - keep things simple, you just need to communicate an idea
  • Process over art - remember it’s about collaboration and group learning

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