IDEO: Getting Closer to the Customer Through Virtual Reality

IDEO, a pioneer in design thinking, employs ethnographic research as an essential part of its new product, service, and experience design process. Ethnographic research has many benefits, but it's not without its challenges. How will using VR help the firm overcome some of these obstacles inherent in this type of research?


Like many innovation and design consulting firms, IDEO intensely focuses on understanding and empathizing with people to gain intriguing insights in order to design new products, services, experiences, and businesses. A primary mode of exploring various human conditions is through ethnographic research, where researchers meet potential customers and extreme users in the field, ask probing questions, observe their surroundings, and absorb the experience. Findings are amassed and serve as a catalyst and source of inspiration for break-through, revolutionary ideas.

There are some drawbacks associated with this type of research. First, typically there’s a limit to the number of researchers who can participate. Aside from budget constraints, ethnographic research also is constrained by the fact that experiences researchers are observing should be authentic. If research is being conducted around a father’s experience in the kitchen, having ten researchers hanging out, observing this man in his kitchen doesn’t emulate as realistic an experience, as opposed to having just two researchers in the room.

Second, ethnographic research is teeming with data points. It can be hard to capture the most salient observations, let alone the more nuanced ones. Third, it’s hard to capture the experience and recreate it later for those who weren’t able to participate. Extensive notes are taken and photos and videos maybe shared; however, they don’t truly recreate the experience.


Value Creation

Recently IDEO, along with some of its competitors, has been exploring VR and considering different ways to incorporate it into its research efforts. One such experiment involved a project in South Africa. A small team of four conducted their field research as they normally would, however they also took along a pocket-sized virtual reality (VR) camera with a 360-degree lens to record their experiences. On a daily basis, virtual reality videos were sent back to colleagues in the U.S., who could feel completely immersed in the field research as well when they viewed the recordings.

This use of VR in ethnographic research helped IDEOers overcome some of the challenges inherent in this type of research. VR solved:

  • The “intrusiveness” obstacle: More researchers could be “present” while not impacting the research subject’s routine. Because of the camera’s small size, subjects often forgot about its presence and could act realistically.
  • The overwhelming amount of data capture problem: By truly capturing the immersive field experience, IDEOers who traveled to South Africa and those who didn’t can both replay the experiences, uncovering new insights with each viewing.
  • The difficulty associated with trying to recreate the experience: The recording allows clients to gain a greater understanding and more comprehensive picture of the research conducted and the source of critical insights.


Value Capture

IDEO is most likely capturing value in two ways. First, VR is helping them generate better ideas and, in turn, more intriguing services, products, and businesses. Second, the result of better solutions/results—as well as enhanced and elevated client engagement stemming from the use of VR—is more new and repeat business. Also, using VR may provide the firm with an opportunity to charge an even higher premium for its services.


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In addition to its ethnographic research applications, VR could be used in two additional manners. First, it could be employed as part of prototyping ideas and testing them with consumers, both in an individual setting as well as a focus group environment. Second, VR could be utilized as part of presentations to clients, so that they not only appreciate the research but can also get a more complete understanding of the vision for the new product/service being proposed. Both of these VR applications could help compound the value capture that IDEO is already generating through its use of VR in ethnographic research.






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