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How to DeRisk Your Product Design Through Ethnography

Sam White
Sam White October 29, 2019 • 0 min read

When AgeWell Toronto invited Cortex President Dylan Horvath to present a workshop to their network of researchers and entrepreneurs, our goal was to relate the vital importance of de-risking the product design process. Many startups (especially those under time pressure and budget limitations) choose to dive straight into development, assuming the product will be a good market fit if the design process is done properly. In case you missed out on the workshop (or want a refresher) we’ve compiled some key takeaways in this post!

Imagine a connected device that sits on your kitchen counter and promises to revolutionize home food delivery. It has a stunning, polished design that turns heads. The engineering is top notch. It uses a proven recurring revenue subscription model. Oh, and it’s already received $118M of VC funding from firms like Kleiner Perkins and Alphabet. 

All systems go, right? 

Except this product completely flopped. Like, historically. When it launched in 2017, Juicero became a target of mockery across the internet and the company quickly folded. It wouldn’t squeeze the juice packs unless it was connected to the internet. Once it was connected to the internet, it would then check with a cloud system to decide whether or not it would squeeze the juice pack for you. Early users circumvented this completely by just wringing the juice out of the pack themselves with their hands. Suddenly, all of the resources and engineering that went into making this machine work became glaringly unnecessary — and stood in the way of the experience the consumer actually wanted to have.

The glaring flaws seem obvious in hindsight – but in the beginning, Juicero had all the hallmarks of a successful product: great design, superior engineering, a fantastic business model. It was the darling jewel of the Bay Area VC community. 

Juicero just didn’t solve a real problem. Someone had talked themselves into all the shiny things that could make the product successful, instead of checking their assumptions at every stage and searching for the “no” that would pivot the product to something people actually wanted. As a result, Juicero opened themselves up to huge risk, and lost a lot of money. 

Home health is a frontier that is seeing major investment. The search is on for the next connected device that will revolutionize home health care by delivering medication, diagnostics and treatment to allow seniors to stay in their homes longer – which will help lower the burden on the healthcare system and improve patient quality of life. Home Health is also full of companies that are using this kind of faulty product validation, leading them down the same road that led to the Juicero flop. 

Let’s explore this use case further: 

Too many medical devices are validated and developed with this image of aging in mind: 

When the reality is more like this: 

Ethnographic research is the practice of going deep into your user’s lives to understand their actual lived experience. Instead of bringing them onto your turf, you meet them where they live, where they work, and try to learn the things that are most difficult about their lives. A lot of important problems can be very personal, or even painful to discuss. Instead of administering a questionnaire, you have a coffee and a conversation with them. This is not the stage to introduce a solution to a perceived problem. At this stage you’re there to learn, observe, and develop empathy.  

Ethnography isn’t about using “intuition” to understand your user’s problems. There’s nothing mystical or intuitive about it. Actually, it’s the opposite. It’s a process with a well-defined methodology. It’s data driven, but data quality improves when it’s derived from trust from the people who will be using your product. 

Ethnographic research has its limitations, but there are a few major advantages. Most significantly it allows you to fail faster. 

An example: in the medical device space, a company envisioned a home hub whose main interface was envisioned as a picture frame, but whose purpose in the home was to monitor the health and safety of people in the home. Its purpose was to mitigate major causes of in-home injury, and users would love it because it reminded them of their loved ones. 


Ethnographic research invalidated this idea. It revealed that older people don’t look at framed photographs very often. They, like many of us, use apps like Facebook to keep tabs on their friends and family. This was a simple insight that was hard to come by, because it relied on going into the field, forming relationships, and having actual conversations. 

Surveys and focus groups initially validated this idea. When we used those methods, people found the idea pretty useful. Until we went deeper. 

This insight and others like it have saved a lot of our clients’ money — and our own — because it allowed them to fail faster. When ethnographic research does validate an idea — or provides insight on how to improve it — it leads to some truly special and successful products. 

Too many businesses skip user research and product validation because it stands in the way on the timeline to that pot of gold at the end – the point where a sales team can be set loose to sell product rolling off the end of an assembly line. The FDA has recognized the fallacy and danger of this approach, and part of the regulatory process now mandates that design input should include the needs of the user and patient. It requires that designers validate their products based on these user needs and intended uses.

No such controls exist for consumer products. That’s what creates risk, and products like Juicero. 

May it rest in peace. 

More about the Event: AgeWell is a conference of startups, nonprofits, and healthcare providers developing technologies that benefit older adults and caregivers. AgeWell explores ways to use next generation technologies to extend independent living for older Canadians. 

Like, comment, or sign up for our email list where we’ll be sharing some of the templates for ethnographic research Dylan explored in the workshop! And get in touch with us directly if you’d like to learn more about how you can use ethnography to boost your product’s resonance. 

Read more about our approach to design thinking in this blog post: Are you Falling for Design Failure? Or download our E-Book: How to make Profitable Products

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