Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Consensus: A Warped Perspective

Consensus … it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In a world where we seek to gain input, feedback and consensus on many business initiatives, using mediums like focus groups and opinion polls, decisions by committee still leave a lot of room for error! While the concept of a collaborative approach on determining the most effective means of delivering a product or service can be a real advantage, testing just about anything using the opinions of your peers can create a kind of regimented or stilted response no matter how broad the sample of key stakeholders is. Often the environment or the unseen benefits of a particular product or service are not considered. They are measured against the norm and for those of us seeking to “think outside the box” or create something that is distinctive and unique the norm is not what we are trying to achieve.

Uniqueness or innovative thinking by their very nature are often unrecognizable to those whose opinions we seek. Moribund by their comfort zone, dedicated to the predictable and locked into their hermitically sealed views, opinionated influencers and focus groups can hardly offer real insight into the potential success of a product, or, the preferences of any group of people. The timelines that frame such opinion gathering mediums typically reflect the now, the immediate window of opportunity. This, in my opinion, is often short sited and a general approach that has produced a societal focus on the immediate dividends of any initiative and not the long term value.

Take for example the introduction of a new design in office chairs introduced in 1976 by Herman Miller Inc. in the US. The first ever ergonomically designed chair was developed for the North American marketplace. These were heady times in the design world, what with free speech, flower power and new creative energy of the 60’s and 70’s. It was during this unique time, when modern design was King or Queen, if I am to be politically correct, that Herman Miller introduced the Ergon chair. Working with Herman Miller Inc., designer Bill Stumpf conducted 10 years of research into how people really sit when they work. Stumpf's research focused on consultations with orthopedic surgeons and cardiovascular specialists to understand the effects of chairs and the seated posture on the body's circulatory system, muscles, and bones, examining the human behaviour of sitting -- the motions, activities, and posture patterns of people performing various tasks and explored how work chairs can be designed to effectively support a wide range of body heights, weights, and shapes.

The chair was unlike any chair ever seen up to that point. This new sleek, black chair, with controls for adjusting tilt and height were unheard of. The chair was subjected to a focus group review before being introduced into the marketplace and in each instance the group reviewing the chairs showed a marked dislike for the design. A number of follow-up focus group tests were conducted and in each case the results came back the same. The product was ugly and would not be successful in the marketplace. Fortunately for us, Herman Miller, ignored that feedback and proceeded with the launch of the chairs in 1976 … and in fact you are probably sitting in a chair modeled after this design, as you read this article!

The Ergon chair revolutionized office seating because it was designed for both comfort and user health. For the first time, businesses could provide their workers with seating designed for the way they really sit -- not for the way someone thought they should sit. With the Ergon chair, Herman Miller established the reference point for comfortable, healthful, and visually appealing ergonomic seating.

The moral of this cautionary tale is, that while, consensus building is an important part of understanding the user’s needs for any given product or service – sometimes their distinctive nature and their usability are far more convincing over the long term. Do your homework – but remember evaluating the success or failure of any product or service is more than achieving short-term objectives; it is often understanding the long term outlook and championing this in a workplace.

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