Immersive Customer Experience, Michele Marut and Duncan Wannamaker

Please tell us about how you promoted empathy for users and/or how you improved the successfulness of a product, service, experience, etc., through attention to user empathy.: 

What We Did  We promoted empathy by creating a permanent and delightful experience that was the physical embodiment of our small retail customer. In our case, the store was “Helen’s Habitats,” a fictitious local home-furnishing store that also offered design services. . It wasn’t just a room set-up like a store – it took on the persona and artifacts of a real business (working hardware, brochures, branding, receipts, etc…). This gave our team members the ability to truly walk in our customer’s shoes. Team members were so immersed in the experience that they even began to refer to it by the store name. The setup had many uses, but some of the biggest ways that we benefited from this space included:

  • Using the environment to quickly test solutions in the representative context of a customer 
  • Conducting customer research/usability to build empathy
  • Creating much improved product demos to help the team understand our customer.

The Benefits of This Approach

Increased empathy amongst team members.

  • We “ate our own dogfood.” Because we used a realistic set-up and a variety of products - the team experienced issues the customer might have and strengthened their empathy for the customer. During one live demo, an actual credit card reader failure message popped up and the startled team member panicked - as a customer might in front of their customer. During other demos, it became clear that our “employee” was avoiding scanning the napkin holders because “they were hard to scan” with the iPad barcode scanner we were planning to use.
  • Team members wanted to be in the room. On two occasions, team members who were playing with the set-up were startled when the cash drawer really opened (one even spilled his coffee – like a real store we banned food and drink after that incident). Customer research done in an improved environment. oInstead of testing customers in the traditional usability labs, which can sometimes feel like sterile interrogation rooms, we made over 15 customer participants feel “at-home” in our store. We also knew by doing “follow me homes/site visits” to customers with prototypes/betas of products it can still be awkward so we had our participants bring their own inventory to our store. This afforded us the ability to conduct research in an environment that made our customers feel much more comfortable and let us to get a better look at how they might actually work. oWe aided remote team members in building customer empathy. We were already using airplay to show mobile screens to the in-person audience and innovated by adding a web-ex video to enable remote team members to attend the sessions. This meant that we could simultaneously stream a video of the customer in the store environment and a video of a mobile or web/ screen that the customer was using. Being able to loop the entire team into the research activities in this way helped to create deep customer empathy across the team. Moreover, all the sessions were well attended by in-person and remote team members alike! An improved product demo.
  • By using role-playing, we created a story around typical scenarios and related customer pain points (entering/updating inventory, making a sale, handling a return, advertising the store, seeing the sale appear on the books [QuickBooks], etc…).
  • We took on characters and stayed in them for the duration of the demos. Duncan played a store employee and Michele played a store customer.
  • Unlike many demos/vision experiences, we showed:
    • The representative space for the customer – it did not focus on one product - it was about embodying the customer in the physical space. This enabled us to set-up and test competitor/related products (Square Register, QuickBooks Point of Sale) and connect them to QuickBooks all in the same space. (Note: Square is now an Intuit partner)
    • Multiple Intuit products in the same context. Products included both mobile and web.
    • Both our customer and the customer’s customer in the same context. We believe that no amount of research or testimonials can ever be as effective as this type of firsthand experience. Getting product managers and engineers to have empathy and buy-in to make improvements was priceless compared to having debates in meetings that this might happen or it was only seen in a lab test. 

Testimonials "I have always believed that when you feel the customer's pain in your guts, that is when you truly have put yourselves in their shoes and engaging with them deeply can get you there. My experience with Helen's Habitat took my belief to a new level. Stepping into the store that looked so "real" and watching Michele and Duncan play the role of the small business owners and making me go through the experience as their customer is something hard to describe in words. For a moment, I forgot that they are Intuit employees and I played along until I bought a pillow from Helen's Habitat and was ready to walk out of the door. Who could have ever imagined in the absence of real small business customers that by walking into a room at Intuit campus and meeting Michele and Duncan who were in the shoes of a small business owner, one can feel instant empathy" Jay Krishnan Sr. Product Marketing Mgr. & Innovation Catalyst

One of the big pushes that we’ve heard is “get the front-line developers to better understand the customer and you will build a better product,” and that is exactly what the immersive customer experience did - "This project was very unique and fun for entire team: Product Managers, Designers, User Researchers, Engineers [went through] the entire experience of “starting abusiness” – cleaning unused office room to be a “future store”, deciding what kind of store it is going to be, decorating it, setting up inventory, and working with existing applications (both Intuit and competitor solutions) to quickly understand what’s so good in using each one of them and how big of a pain they can be in certain situations. After that team “artificially” limited the choices of equipment to solve for the budgeting limitations of most small businesses, and entire team worked in quick iterations to design and prototype experience to resolve these constraints by using technology almost every one of us has in their pockets nowadays – making smartphones, tablets work seamlessly together to replace retail specific expensive hardware... The reward for this hard work was to watch real small business owners trying these prototypes during lab sessions and asking “when can I have it?” questions." Tim Beschastnov Sr. Product Development Manager.

Other Outcomes Overall, the impact centered on enabling different types of employees (team members and Intuit leaders) to gain deep customer empathy. By creating an emotional connection, we inspired others to gain a deeper understanding of the customer and build products that the customer will love. Other outcomes included the following: 

  • Significant executive support for the strategy and vision. We took 100+ people (including 15+ senior leaders across Intuit) through the immersive live demo experience enabling buy-in through Intuit leadership. Leaders included senior staff such as the CEO and the CTO? The CTO brought his entire 25 person staff back to experience it and used it as an example of innovation at a CTO staff meeting.
  • A permanent space for this experience. In a place where space is limited, we successfully showed the value of the converted office and obtained a bigger and better space.
  • Inspire for action. We inspired others to create similar immersive experiences. The usability lab team changed their plans from making a lab into living room to creating a retail space based on this one. A payroll team reached out to us for advice on setting up something similar.
  • Increase in morale / team building. We heard from team members and leaders that we were a model of user experience / product management collaboration and that the space increased morale for the entire team. Extended team members understand it. Team members that had not been as close to the customer previously (development, support agents, QA, etc.) attended demos. “This is a vision I can get behind” from a PM? “No one ever explained/showed how the products really work like this” (from two executive assistants).
  • Recognition. An internal newsletter featured Michele for doing “an incredible job of helping her team, and other employees, get some great Deep Customer Empathy”. The newsletter goes to over 500 people. oMichele also received an Intuit Experience Design (XD) Community award for “challenging others to think differently without making enemies.”
What can others learn from your approach to promoting empathy for users?: 

Our team had a problem that a single prototype/demo could not address: Illustrating customer pain points across multiple touch points (mobile and web) and showing the experience of our ultimate vision for delighting our customers.

Instead of a conference room demo, our team tore down our war room and built a realistic store environment. We brought stakeholders and customers through the experience one at a time to test our vision, combining role-playing and storytelling to act out scenarios.

By creating this immersive experience we successfully established an emotional connection between our users and team, gained leadership support and influenced teams across Intuit.

So what did you do?

At the highest level, we created a high-fidelity approximation of a customer’s retail store environment on our own corporate campus.

This process contained a number of key components that enabled us to be effective:

  • Finding an independent physical space that can be “commandeered” full time
  • Researching target customers to truly understand the ins-and-outs of their physical workspace
  • Pulling out all of the stops to bring that space to life in the workplace

How did you use this space?

Originally the purpose of the space was so that our team could do a product demonstration for our leadership team that truly captured the pain points that we saw in our research “in the wild." Current product demo options made it difficult to see the pains associated with working within the physical space and across products.

  • After serving it’s initial purpose, however, we were able to leverage this space to aid with many other purposes beyond our initial needs:
  • High-impact onsite customer research: 1) Allows you to test full systems without individualized setup, and makes the customer feel more at home
  • Also allows more team members to view/take part in seeing the entire set-up
  • Test cross-product integrations and workflows: By embodying the customer and not simply the product space, you allow yourself to test cross-product solutions with ease
  • Ground team in the “who” of our vision: We held daily team meetings and share outs in the room to continually immerse the entire team in our target customer 
What was the overall impact on empathy on the team?
  • Forcing the team to complete customer tasks in a physical customer space led to “aha moments” around the interrelationship of mobile and desktop solutions. This helped us to find and address nuanced usability issues.
  • It enabled us to make leadership part of the story when they became "customers" in the store. This helped them to understand pain points and support continued explorations.
  • It brought our customer story to life for our team. Instead of reading pain point diagrams, our simulated customer space forced our team to “eat our own dogfood” and deal with the real issues that our customers see in product.
What research, data, and other information does your team use upfront, and how has that been effective in generating informed empathy?: 

New team members almost always go on “Follow Me Homes (FMHs), which are an Intuit-wide customer research method that involves going to the customer place of work and observing their behavior. “Instead of marketing research or management presentations about product ideas, Intuit conducts 10,000 hours of what Smith calls "follow me homes" each year, in which employees observe customers at home or at work. The goal is to understand their pain points, their needs, things customers may not recognize themselves. Teams are also able to do this via screen sharing, where customers share their screens and the research is done remotely. In these sessions the customers do not need to be current users of Intuit software. The tactic is effective in generating immediate empathy for the individual user, but it’s often a challenge to keep that alive throughout the duration of a longer project. In our case, Duncan conducted some early FMHs and Michele led additional ones that included a Product Manager, a Product Developer and an interaction designer to get the team familiar with the target persona and collect additional data. Michele also led calls with customers who were beta testing a very early form of the product. The immersive experience coupled with daily team meetings, live demos and customers sessions enabled us to keep Helen and her employee’s top of mind from day to day.

What does your team do to maintain and fine-tune its empathy for users on an ongoing basis during the course of a project?: 

As the project progressed and we continued to fine-tune the store environment, the team began working from the space daily. We continually posted new and/or relevant quotes from our interviews and photos from the FMHs on the wall.

Please describe one or more compelling examples of how empathy for users has positively affected your team’s successfulness.: 

We had daily meetings in the room. We always ran through the latest prototype or build in front of all team members. This led us to catch several opportunities for potential improvements. Instead of “This is how it is” it became “Why couldn’t you just do that?” Even if at the time the team was not referring to it as an “empathy exercise”, we observed it happening when team members began to donate items (e.g. reusable shopping bags, glasses and plates) to the experience and others complained about a tough time hearing on the customer research calls. They were that engaged-can you imagine instead of trying to get people to come to your studies they were complaining about the volume? It shifted the conversation about what we are trying to learn. Instead of formal reports on pain points, Michele leveraged the immersive experience to walk team members (often one at time) though the issues that had been encountered in the sessions. This approach was very well received by the team, who found it easier to relate to than a slide deck. Michele then followed up with a simple bulleted list of the usability priorities. Additionally, the program manager for the beta study found the immersive experience so valuable that he had the team answer questions and conduct a live demo for the support agents. He also recorded it so they would have it as a reference.

What do you do to ensure empathy for users permeates the team and appropriately influences decision-making on an ongoing basis?: 

Overall, the impact centered on enabling different types of employees (team members and Intuit leaders) to gain deep customer empathy. By creating an emotional connection, we inspired others to gain a deeper understanding of the customer and build products that the customer will love. While doing demonstrations with our early versions of the software, we encountered difficulty doing several things from scanning items to seeing transactions on the web software. Current versions of the GoPayment app for iPad  have updates based on this work.  These changes were significant and would not have happened without actively watching participants try to scan barcodes, add photos and price their own items in the app.