Talking with a farmer

How do you build empathy with your agricultural technology customers?

Customer Empathy will be well-known to anyone who has heard about design thinking. So too, for that matter, anyone who has attended an Ag Innovations Bootcamp. Customer empathy is fundamental to creating great design that meets people’s needs. So how do you do it?

Empathy or sympathy?

Often “customer empathy” can sound a bit soft and “fluffy”; and rural professionals won’t want us to “empathise” with them, will they?

It’s easy for us to mistake empathy for sympathy. Both words involve understanding.

  • Sympathy involves understanding emotional or physical hardships, and then offering comfort and assurance.
  • Empathy builds personal understanding of what others are feeling, and the ability to put yourself “in their shoes”.

Embrace what you don’t know

Design practitioners we work with exhibit a similarity – they cultivate a “relentless curiosity”.

You’ve experienced this yourself, with someone who took a deep and genuine interest in your work or hobby. They listened attentively and asked thoughtful follow-up questions. They made you feel as though you were the most interesting person on earth!

Too often, when we venture into the field to talk to customers, we try to validate our own thoughts. We are the experts. We ask questions to qualify the customer, and to quantify the value that our solution will offer.

But what if our intended solution is not what the customer needs? What if there is an opportunity for something even better and more interesting?

Prepared questions will help you start a conversation. Deep listening and genuine curiosity will help us learn more than we could imagine.

Many beats one, and one beats many

How many customers do you need to interview? Will one or two be enough?

It would be nice to think so. Interviews take time to arrange. They take a lot of time and energy to carry out, and they often involve much travel. You can’t usually interview agricultural workers on a city street with a clipboard.

If you interview too few people, it can be hard to distinguish the important from the frustration of the hour. We know that diversity is an essential to high performing teams and great decisions. Seeking diverse views will also help you to create better products or services.

Plan for at least five interviews. You should find both commonality and the breadth of variation between your interviewees.  If you’re finding great diversity (or your first interviews don’t fit your early adopter profile), you may need to find more.

If you need to interview that many, should you consider a focus group instead? Could you get a group of customers in a room or on a Skype call and make more progress?

We don’t recommend this.

Focus groups have a different dynamic to one-on-one discussions. They good for uncovering trends and areas of concern. Detailed insights into the jobs your customers are trying to do are less likely to surface.

Will all users share their experiences and frustrations in a focus group? You may only hear personal experiences from the extroverts. There’s also the risk of “group think”. People may agree with well-expressed comments from others, regardless of their personal experience.

Make the effort to interview customers as individuals, or at most in twos.

Go where they are

In our experience, there is some value in bringing farmers or rural professionals into a meeting room or board room. They are less prone to interruption, and you have more wall space for Post-It notes and diagrams.

Yet you miss seeing the actual environment where they work and will use your product or service. You may also miss the environmental influences that affect the tasks they are trying to do.

Being on the farm or in the customer’s work environment allows them to pick up equipment and show you how they use it. They can point and describe the flow of animals, the pressure of people and machines. You can observe the frustration of sunlight on displays.

Most important: when you bring an end user into the boardroom, they become an amateur designer. This might be valuable, but it also becomes easier to talk in general terms. You may map general processes and forget to delve into experience.

Go to where your customers and end users work. You’ll gain richer insights and higher fidelity than you ever could in the boardroom.

Build your skills in customer empathy, prototyping, and validation.

Embracing The Unknown: Reflecting on the First Ag Innovations Bootcamp

Jeremy Suisted, 25 February 2019

Confession time. It was with more-than-a-little nervousness that I arrived to Rezare Systems’ Ag Innovations Bootcamp at Mystery Creek in December. I wasn’t nervous about the content – as a facilitator I had guided and coached many teams through design thinking and innovation experiences. I wasn’t nervous about the size of the group – Rezare had done a masterful job of curating an experience to 20 people, allowing for much more tailored learning and personal interactions with everyone in the room.

I was nervous because I had never worked in this way with agricultural innovators, farm specialists and primary sector entrepreneurs before – and I wondered how they would engage with new processes and learnings designed to help them create new solutions that solve real problems.

I shouldn’t have been afraid. Within moments of my arrival, I recognised that Rezare had created an experience that encouraged all participants to embrace this new process, to voice any questions and concerns they had, and to lean into the uncertainty they may be feeling.

The Ag Innovations Bootcamp was created by Rezare as they recognised the need for upskilling and supporting agricultural innovators and businesses who were developing new and improved products and services for the market. These businesses were highly capable in their technological skills and knowledge of the market – but many did not know how to deeply understand the customer problem to be solved, or ways to rapidly co-create with their customer, generating new insights and better-fit final products.

Motivated by this need, Rezare decided to practise what they preached. Billed as a prototype event, the Ag Innovations Bootcamp provided a bespoke learning experience, with participants being guided through LEAN business model canvases and how to apply these to new concepts, approaches in ideation and brainstorming, powerful empathy techniques, and hands-on experience in rapid prototyping. The two-day event was jam-packed with practical learning, but also invited feedback and iteration from the participants – so they could see how even the Bootcamp was a design-driven event.

Each aspect of Bootcamp was planned for the needs of the participants, who Rezare had identified as ranging from entrepreneurs seeking to develop their agricultural product, through to business managers from rural agencies and large-scale agribusinesses. All participants shared a common drive – a willingness to be creating new solutions that will benefit farmers, orchardists and primary industry producers around the world.

As a design thinking facilitator, I’m increasingly aware of the critical need for innovators and managers to upskill in this area. McKinsey reports that businesses that embrace human-centred design and co-creation provide 32% higher revenue growth than non-design led businesses, and 56% higher return to shareholders. At the same time – over 40% of companies don’t talk to their customers at all during product and service design – a trend which is likely higher in New Zealand. In our world of rapid change, developing trends and lower development costs, it is imperative that innovators learn to co-create with their customers and solve their real problems. This is the heart-beat behind Ag Innovation Bootcamp – and a growing need in many businesses.

Over the two days, our Ag Innovations Bootcamp participants learned the theory of design thinking and engaged with case-studies of design thinking challenges – but the true growth came from the design experience curated for them. Small start-up teams were formed amongst the participants, who were tasked with a design challenge – and then coached throughout a design sprint. It was immensely encouraging to see all of the participants crafting discussion guides, running empathy interviews with real customers, capturing key insights, clustering new concepts and discoveries, generating 100s of potential solutions, and prototyping an idea for testing – all within a fast-paced, supportive environment.

There was plenty of laughter, questions and debate throughout the two days, which was encouraged by Rezare and all the facilitators. Additionally – participants were provided with breaks from doing, to learn from experienced innovators from Gallagher, Amazon, New Zealand Trade & Enterprise and more.

At the end of Ag Innovations Bootcamp, I was not driving away with nerves, but with excitement. I was deeply encouraged by how much the participants had embraced the learning, and created concrete lessons that they were looking forward to applying in their business. I enjoyed seeing moments of discovery for all of us, and a recognition from participants that they could do this – that they could begin talking to customers, generating insights and designing quality solutions to real problems. I was motivated that it was through the unique combination of listening and doing, that Rezare had crafted an event that really did maximise the learning for all who attended.

And I was encouraged to learn that this would not be the last – but that Rezare Systems would continue to iterate the Ag Innovations Bootcamp, to keep supporting and guiding innovators towards both business and product success.

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A young woman leaning on a farm gate

How to choose early customers for your agricultural innovation

We often discuss approaches to building customer empathy and validating product design, for example when we are helping our own customers or in events such as Ag Innovations Bootcamp.

One of the recurring questions is “are we working or testing with the right customers?” Often the answer is a clear “yes”, but not always. The cost to a business of developing an innovation based on feedback from the wrong customer can be enormous.

If you develop products or services for the agricultural sector, it is worth revisiting how you identify and choose your early customers.

Why early customers are important

At first glance, early customers are only those who first discover and adopt your service. But it’s often not that simple. They may arrive through your network. They may be hard-won with shoe leather, or by “growth hacking” your value proposition.

Early customers will influence your product in important ways:

  • Great product design comes from customer empathy. You build a deep understanding of your customer’s context, goals and needs. You must understand the real problem you are trying to solve for the customer, and its value to them.
  • You test your product or service prototypes with your early customers. These may be deliberate prototypes or your first MVP (Minimum Viable Product) release.
  • Early customers show traction. Your investors or your organisation look to adoption as proof of a viable business model.

Who are my early adopters?

Everett Rogers coined the term in his book The Diffusion of Innovations (1962). His theory about adoption of innovation used the results of 508 sociology studies. Much of the early work on diffusion focused on agricultural technology in the 1920s and ’30s. This was a time of widespread innovation in genetics and mechanisation.

Rogers defined five categories of adopters for an innovation:

  1. Innovators: willing to take a risk on innovation for its own sake.
  2. Early adopters: adopt technology that solves problems and provides status.
  3. Early majority: influenced by early adopters, they wait to adopt useful and valuable innovation.
  4. Late adopters: with some scepticism adopt after the majority.
  5. Laggards: see no value in change.

These are often seen in the diagram made popular in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (1991).

Diffusion of innovations graph

Image attribution: Andre Ivanchuk

The percentages shown may not quite match your market, but studies show the shape of the curve and overall proportions generally apply.

Early adopters must be the initial target. Innovators love innovation for its own sake. They don’t represent the problems and needs of your larger market. You will end up solving the wrong problems. The early majority await evidence of success from early adopters.

How you can identify an early adopter

We like the way that Justin Wilcox defines early adopters in the light of the problem you are trying to solve (Focus Framework, 2016). It’s a practical way to think about what makes your early adopters distinctive.

Laggards Don’t have the problem you are trying to solve.
Late majority Have the problem, but don’t know it yet.
Early majority Have the problem, and know they have the problem, but are not yet paying to solve the problem.
Early adopters Have the problem, know they have the problem, and are already paying to solve the problem.

“Paying” to solve the problem doesn’t mean they are buying another product or service. They may be investing time or effort. They may be hiring staff or using a consultant. They may be “making do” or “using number 8 wire” (as we say in New Zealand).

What techniques might your early adopters be using to solve the problem? Those very techniques might be the indicators that help you identify the customers.

As early adopters know they have the problem and are trying to solve it, they may respond to an appropriate call to action. You might test if you can position your solution in a way that early adopters will recognise and respond.

Finding early adopter farmers and rural professionals

One you’ve worked out how to recognise or filter an early adopter, where do you look? These suggestions come from our team and Ag Innovations Bootcamp attendees:

Listen online: Tune into farming-oriented groups in Facebook or hashtags on Twitter. The best Facebook farming groups are often closed – you need to be a farmer or show you won’t spam the group to join. Use these groups to understand interests, events, and to ask good questions.

  1. Build your network: Create a diverse network of rural professionals, influencers, and others. Make sure you help others and give as well as take. Members of your network will help you meet potential early adopters.
  2. Hit the road: Attend the events that your early adopters are also likely to attend. There are many farming-focused events, conferences, and field days. Going along to listen and learn at farm open days is a great way to meet others.
  3. Learn the language: Agriculturalists I know are willing to speak with anyone trying to improve farming’s lot. Listen to them to build the language and questions that will help you influence customers.
Build your skills in customer empathy, prototyping, and validation.

Four ways to make your farming app engaging

So you’ve decided to build a mobile app for your rural customers or users. You have spent time on the overall value proposition, deciding how your app will deliver enough value to your users that they will spend the requisite time – and money – to use your service. No doubt you’re also modelling the likely market penetration and adoption curves, because you want to make sure you can get a return for all the investment in software development, testing, and marketing.

You know that up to 20% of mobile apps are downloaded, used once, and then never touched again (perhaps uninstalled when the user runs out of space). How can you avoid your app ending up in that category? Better than that, can you provide an experience sufficiently valuable and engaging that users tell their friends?

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