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.

Do we really know what’s coming?

One of the questions I am often asked is: “How does farming in NZ compare with the UK”?

Right now I think it’s a slightly loaded question with all the Brexit talk – subsidies and all that. But in reality given the context of the question is usually in the knowledge I head up a UK-based subsidiary of an NZ agri-software business, what many are really asking is: “How will technology change what we are doing, and is NZ ahead of the UK”?

Now this is a harder question to answer. I guess at a high level I would say adoption of technology in the NZ dairy sector is some years ahead of the UK, but equally, there are big advances in UK arable and hort which one might say are further ahead than NZ. One thing I would say is that NZ farmers are, more typically, open to change and innovation and less wedded to the way it is.

But I think there is something bigger going on than simply comparing one country with another. Sure NZ is a focus for our sector just now because of the way it has, in a generation, turned itself into a very globally focused and innovative economy; one that tops the global rankings for ease of doing business (and one that I would say punches well above its weight, and that’s not just the All Blacks!). No. I think we are witnessing the early stages of an utterly transformative period in global agriculture.

And that’s why I ask the question: “Do we really know what’s coming?” By this I mean, how is technology (and maybe digital and data in particular) going to change the sector?

In short, from where I sit, I would say those of us in the tech world do have a good hunch about what’s coming and the potential impact it will have. But I am not at all convinced the “average farmer” (which is a horrid term) does.

To me it is inconceivable that a farming business (whether in the UK or elsewhere) will be in any way competitive without the use of data-driven decision support tools in the future. The level of accuracy and objectivity that data will deliver (and we are seeing this already) simply puts subjective observation in the second tier of good decision making.

That isn’t to say good husbandry and farming experience have no place in the future (of course they do – I know some brilliant, intuitive and innovative farmers) but those who apply that experience with the latest technological tools will become the Premier League while others languish in the lower divisions.

Give me an example I hear you cry? Ok! A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the CEO of an innovative dairy cow data capture company (based in the UK) that is effectively putting Fitbits on cows. The volumes of behavioural data they are collecting from those animals is now substantial. But it’s what they are doing with it that so impressed me.

By using clever algorithms to understand normal and outlier behaviour of animals they are achieving two great things. The first is the ability to provide alerts flagging animals that are not exhibiting typical behaviour. In other words, “go look at those ones, that’s where you should prioritise your time”.

But the second is what really excites me. Who’d have thought that by analysing cow behaviour data it would be possible to identify lameness, mastitis and other disorders days (even weeks) ahead of when the clinical signs might be observed? I don’t care if you are the best herdsman in the world, it is hard to compete with decision support from data that is identifying things well before they are ever observable by the human eye.

This “power” has the potential to transform the way we run our farms. The application of digital technology will not only potentially save time and labour, it will enable better focus on meeting market requirements, predicting and avoiding problems, and increasingly importantly, be able to provide a substantial evidence base to back and improve welfare standards and all sorts of other production areas currently under scrutiny.

But this future is a far cry from where many on our farms sit currently. Sure there are those that are the early adopters, but I think there is a large majority who simply don’t see this massive change coming, or if they do are in denial.

There are many analogies over the years of where technological change has been transformative and where at the time many did not see it coming: Henry Ford and so on. But it’s the sheer scale of change from tech-driven ag that I think we underestimate at our peril.

The upside is that all this talk of agriculture being a high-tech industry that our children and students should be enthused about is not just talk. It is absolutely true. The more we can find demonstrable examples of great (even cool) innovation, the better it will be for our farming sector, not only because we can farm better, but because we can also excite the right people into the industry.

In my 25-plus years in the ag world in the UK and NZ, never have I felt there is a better time and more opportunity for non-farming people to get involved in the industry, whether that’s in agribusiness, science or on the farm.

And if, as I suspect, we see a reasonably aggressive scaling back of direct farm support in the UK (assuming we Brexit!), that could open the door to a new generation of tech-driven farmers, unencumbered by the past and able to deliver from the potential of the land and associated technology alone. They will be the new competition.

Can’t see it coming? The iPhone is only a little over 10 years old. Things will look very different a decade from now in agriculture. That’s really not very far away. Are you on the train or is it leaving without you?

New grass establishment

#EvokeAg – Making the agritech ecosystem visible and discoverable

We recently attended and exhibited at EvokeAg, the new agrifood international technology event specifically for the food and farming community hosted by AgriFutures Australia.

EvokeAg brought together more than 1100 attendees from across the Australian and wider agriculture and agritech industries, including 100+ attendees from New Zealand and a substantial contingent from Israel. The event featured over 100 speakers from 20 countries, but importantly there was opportunity for all participants to share and be involved.

What was big?

Presenters, panels, exhibitors, and discussions covered a wide variety of topics. A few themes emerged:

  • The start-up and investment ecosystem – more about this below;
  • Irrigation and monitoring systems such as Lindsay FieldNet and Wildeye irrigation monitoring;
  • Automation and robotics (Robotics Plus, Yamaha, Bosch, and more);
  • Data collection, analysis, and the application of artificial intelligence. Comments like “Data is the new gold” abounded.

I’m not personally sure that data is the new gold. I think data is more like an ore that needs to be mined, processed, and refined to extract the real gold. Or maybe data is more like electricity – its intrinsic value is established from use, rather than collection.

Its all about the Ecosystem

We think that the biggest impact of EvokeAg is its impact on the agricultural innovation ecosystem. The event brought together a diverse, fragmented, and sometimes vaporous ecosystem of people and organisations and made it concrete and discoverable in the moment. Examples of groups brought together included:

  • Start-ups and new agritechnology players;
  • Investors, incubators and accelerators, and trade partners; and
  • Research and development organisations and funders.

Making connections

A particular genius of this event was the way that conversations and interactions were facilitated.

  • Braindates, facilitated by an app for discovery and bookings, brought together participants with shared interests, making it easy for those who did not know each other to connect.
  • Careful layout of the food stations, with plenty of tables, seats and leaners for eating encouraged fortuitous conversations, as did the set of food trucks outside providing lunch and evening food around a grassy courtyard.
  • A good blend of exhibitors, lounges, and a “start-up alley” encouraged attendees to look around and interact. Brad and I nearly lost count of the number of people who stopped by the Rezare Systems stand, took a seat and had a relaxed discussion.

The challenge for AgriFutures (the organisers of EvokeAg) and the wider industry is how to capitalise on the positive ecosystem effects to drive growth and innovation. The #growAg initiative announced at the conference, along with AusTrade’s Agriculture 4.0 focus should make a big difference. We’ll play our own part as well – continuing the conversations with those who met with us, and offering an Ag Innovations Bootcamp in early June, an in-depth workshop on design and customer engagement in agriculture, suitable for both start-ups and established Australian agribusinesses looking to innovate.