The Illusion of Knowing Everything

The Illusion of Knowing Everything

To understand people’s needs, we must stretch beyond data.
Derek Robson
Stephanie Sizemore
read time:
7 minutes

Early in my career, I worked on direct marketing mailers for British Telecom’s high-value customers. In some cases, we knew nothing about the people we were trying to reach, so addressed them with the default direct marketing salutation, “Dear Valued Customer.” Finding the target audience was like being spun around blindfolded, then praying you were walking in the right direction.

Thirty-seven years later, we know virtually everything about everyone. Thanks to data mining and feeble privacy laws, we can pinpoint your exact location, health status, consumption habits, and, troublingly, what makes you laugh, cry—even think. All of that data is now being poured into the greased pan of generative AI where—we are promised—it will bake the most delicious cake, made just for us.

From direct marketing to AI-driven personalization, I’ve witnessed a transformation in how businesses reach their customers. We've never known so much about people, and yet we've rarely understood them less. In my view, using data alone to understand people has the same flattening effect as “Dear Valued Customer.”

But there is an antidote: Human-centered design.

Goodbye “Dear Valued Customer”

Once, at an international conference, I heard a speech by someone who worked for a large social media company. The premise of the talk was that a person’s “likes” could mirror their answers on a personality test. The more likes the social media company could analyze, the better they could predict a person’s personality—and to a level of accuracy that could beat what your friends knew of you; beat your family; and maybe know you better than you knew yourself.  

With that kind of knowledge, companies are able to design user experiences that feel like intimate conversations. But are they, really? Or is it only the illusion of intimacy—the hackneyed output of a data-driven predictive power?

It made me wonder: Is how we appear online—even to ourselves—who we really are?

Of course not. People are not reducible to their preferences. People contain multitudes. People change their minds, regularly and often. They respond to things that feel authentic and responsive to their experiences and identity—especially if they have historically been written off, underrepresented, or marginalized. 

The new customer, if we can imagine them in their infinite richness, has in recent times slogged through a global pandemic; discovered the unwelcome uplands of hiked interest rates and housing shortages; and likely contended with some form of professional burnout. Human lives are necessarily messy: You can’t rely on troves of data and canned messages to reach them, let alone persuade them. People can smell a door-to-door algorithm from a mile away. 

The best organizations are able to stretch how they think about their customers. The most successful businesses are able to understand and reflect back to people things that they don’t even know about themselves. 

The power of starting small 

In China, a client once questioned IDEO’s decision to root an entire concept in the preferences and needs of a small group of people. But when the product was delivered, the client recognized a level of human understanding that data alone could not achieve.

My time at IDEO has shown me that understanding people requires research at depth. For us, that often means ethnography, and you don’t have to have thousands or hundreds or even 50 people in the room to do it. What you need is a small sample of people with a diversity of lived experiences whom you get to know very well. 

Starting small requires designing with people and communities rather than for them, too. Innovation doesn’t spring from our heads as Athena from the forehead of Zeus; it's uncovered through the careful and considered use of tools, mindsets, and methods which we share with teams and communities.

Great organizations recognize that the work of understanding their customers is never complete. They continuously challenge themselves to listen and respond to what their customers are telling them, not only through data, but also by including them as co-designers.

The brutality of perfection

I once had a custom suit made for me for my wedding. To appear cool and unconventional, I asked for a red lining. The tailor wondered if I would still be fond of that red lining in 10 years. A simple question based on lots of experience. Upon a moment of honest self-reflection, my answer was, no, I would not. So, I followed his advice. I still wear that suit today; not once have I wished for a red lining. Of course, a company selling that same suit to me based on tracked preferences would’ve gladly hawked me any lining I wanted. But I am not sure I would trust that company again. I’d move on.

The organizations that will endure will be the ones that stretch their ability to deliver long-term, unexpected value to their customers.

I am thrilled by the possibilities of generative AI. IDEO’s experiments with emerging technology are as fervent today as they’ve ever been. And one of the qualities of which I’m most proud is our collective hunch that the most interesting opportunities lie in the messiest places.

That runs counter to the brutal attraction of data and AI in the current moment: an implied promise that an objectively “right” answer is within reach. Much of what we love in the world is so wrong it’s right. Perfect is not interesting, it’s not personal. In our pursuit of the spotless and ideal, we lose the essence that makes us human. The truth is, we value imperfection over perfection. 

New customer, new organization, new baselines 

I believe we’ve now reached an inflection point where many of us are experiencing a similar moment, only all at the same time. The last few years have changed how we work, how we socialize, how we spend our money, and how we think about our time. And we are being pushed to rethink how we do business, too. 

One of the baselines affecting us all is the arrival of the Climate Era. The planet reminds us daily that we have entered into a new normal. July was the hottest month on human record, impacting anyone who works outside or without AC—such as the drivers and  workers delivering boxes upon boxes to our doorsteps.

We can expect increased absenteeism and reduced efficiency, much more disruption to supply chains, and customers moving away from known polluters and toward brands that reward their conscience and their wallet. Climate regulation is coming too: The EU is working to impose tougher rules on  production and consumption in fast fashion.

Yet, while two-thirds of businesses are affected by climate change, few are doing enough to prepare for it. If we’re to avoid catastrophe, we’re going to have to redesign everything. And, if we want people to adopt Climate Era behaviors, we’re going to have to make things that are irresistible to them.

That means creating sustainable products and services that are simply better than the competition. By stretching to meet new and emerging customer needs, organizations can create products that people love and that are fit for the Climate Era.

When the instinct is to contract, great leaders stretch 

The SF adman Howard Gossage had this saying: “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them. And sometimes it’s an ad.” After 36 years as an advertising executive, I know better than anyone that we can’t always predict what will interest people.

But now, as the leader of an extraordinary community of designers, I know we have ways to help organizations figure it out. Creative, mind-bending ways that leaders and their teams can stretch to meet their markets and the new customer.

How? By continuously reassessing and expanding our understanding of what people want and need, with care, imagination, and sensitivity. We owe that to people, and we owe it to the planet all of us call home. 

Because in the end, the things that make our time here on Earth worthwhile are the things no algorithm can come up with on its own, no matter how much of the internet it’s ingested. They’re the irreducible things that make us who we are.

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Derek Robson
Chief Executive Officer
Derek Robson is the CEO of IDEO. Collectively with others, he addresses the constantly-evolving questions of what's next for design, and works towards making a positive change, at scale.
Stephanie Sizemore
Design Lead
As a visual communication designer, Stephanie enjoys highly technical execution and also zooming out on strategy. Her focus is on in social impact, org transformation, and circular design.
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