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.

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.

 

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