Follow extreme users! Product development advice from a researcher

Mountaineer and founder of Patagonia or owner of an island energy system at a chalet in the Alps. Extreme users who are one step ahead of the rest of the market. Get inspired.

Lötschenpass-hut, solar panels
Lötschenpass-hut uses fully renewable energy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Words by: Fabian Meier, Spark Works

In light of the energy transition ahead of us, we had conversations with private citizens who generate their own green electricity to learn about their motivations and challenges.

For the owner of the Lötschenpass-hut generating green energy is not just a nice side project, he fully depends on it to offer meals and lodging to hikers, mountaineers and skiers throughout the year. He custom-built his energy system through many iterations and has his hut decked out with solar panels to generate electricity and warm water. But the sun does not always shine, so he has been tinkering with a wind turbine since 1997. Despite the turbine being destroyed and damaged in winter storms, he persevered and now runs two of them successfully. The need for complete autarky, the climatic conditions and the technical tinkering are all unusual.

Apparently, we had come across an extreme user, which is supposedly a good thing !? At least according to human centered design, a methodology that asks the researcher to empathize with a spectrum of users in order to understand their needs and motivations. But what are extreme users really good for (except for having fun conversations)? Before we answer that question, let us take a step back and ask:

What are extreme users?

A problem creates a much greater or much lesser need for extreme users than for the average user. In both cases this leads to higher requirements for a product or a service. Recalling the example of green energy, an extreme user is not only found in a self-sufficient mountain hut but may also be a person who has no real urge to generate green electricity and will lose all interest the first time the term “kilowatt-hour ”Is uttered. In both cases the requirement for a product is higher in order to satisfy the needs of a user.

Extreme users often have tried solutions that did not work for them and are therefore more aware of their underlying needs. Sometimes they craft or customize products themselves. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard started producing mountaineering equipment when he crafted his own pitons for climbing because existing products did not satisfy his needs.

An extreme user often emerges when a person has a strong internal drive or need to overcome external or internal restrictions, for example someone who lives in a food desert and still values eating healthy. But it can also be someone who will not lift a finger in order to eat healthy.

External factors can be the restrictive environment the person is in. This can, but does not have to be places with an extreme climate like high mountains, the desert or even space. It can be as simple as a neighborhood without grocery stores or in the case of renewable energy, a town with discouraging energy policies.

What are extreme users good for?

Talking to and observing extreme users can generate surprising insights and spark creativity. They can represent a future that has not arrived yet for the mainstream in the way they use tools differently, more intensely or in unusual combinations. Because they have higher requirements which existing products have likely failed to satisfy, they can state their needs very clearly. They broaden the horizon of the researcher with unusual perspectives and behavior. When disappointed with existing solutions and still confronted with a pressing need, they create hacks, customized products and workarounds , which simultaneously teach us about user needs and potential solutions.

What to consider when talking to extreme users

Conversations with extreme users need to be very flexible. The magic of talking to them is that they offer unique insights and surprising hacks that the researcher is unable to anticipate. If we follow an interview guide too rigidly, we miss out. The passion of the user is often a good indicator for unique insights within a guide rail alongside the larger topic. Otherwise, a passionate person could drift off into another topic they are equally passionate about, as I experienced when a conversation shifted seamlessly from the ideal roof angle for solar panels to the problem of letting foreigners into the country.

Distribution of users

User distribution is often assumed to be a bell curve with extreme users on both tails (and it is rarely explicit what the x-axis represents). This does not have to be the case, user distribution could resemble a pare to distribution or multimodal distribution. In these cases, the average user is a useless concept, representing only a small minority of users at best and the extreme users are not found to both sides of the average user either. Airlines know that they have at least a bimodal user distribution with business travelers and casual holiday goers. For both groups extreme users may exist but the business traveler is not an extreme version of a customer flying to Gran Canaria.

Conclusion & outlook

For extreme users internal and external reasons can lead to higher requirements towards a potential product or service. Conversations with people who have needs different from the average user generates valuable insights and adds clarity to the research and further down the line for designers and product developers. Instead of jumping to the first possible “extreme” that comes to mind, try to imagine the user distribution and the spaces where extreme users may be found. Most likely there is more to it than finding people who use a product all the time or almost never.

Author: Fabian Meier is researcher at Spark Works AG, part of the Creative Dock Group.

Fabian holds a MA in International Affairs and Governance from the University of St.Gallen. Thanks to his interdisciplinary degree he was able to gain a valuable set of diverse experiences. As a researcher he talks to knowledgeable experts and quirky users alike. Wether through explorative interviews or immersion, he is always on the hunt for deeper insights and new connections. In the past, he founded a cookie company, advised a development project and gained industry experience in logistics.



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