Review: Hidden in Plain Sight

I’m not going to lie to you: I find reading most business books a challenge, and Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Find and Execute Your Company’s Next Big Growth Strategy by Erich Joachimsthaler was no exception. Some of the difficulty lies in translation: how do I take what is in here and apply it to my own (design) process? This is especially true with this book, which contains techniques that designers frequently use, but are framed in the author’s DIG (Demand-First Innovation and Growth) model.

DIG consists of three phases: examining how people behave and consume; identifying opportunities based on behaviors and hidden motivations; and creating a plan to go after these new opportunities. In other words, this sounds like what we designers call Design Research and Strategy. Someone else probably calls it design thinking (gag).

Still, Hidden in Plain Sight has some observations and case studies from companies like Frito-Lay that, while not exactly design-related, are certainly interesting. And there are nuggets of insight that I think bear considering. For instance, “People as a rule do not seek out products and services. Products and services are merely means to get things done or to spend time their way, to enjoy and experience life.”

Joachimsthaler notes that companies can lose the ability to really see what is going on with the market and with their customers. They can’t see opportunities that are in plain sight. This happens for a number of reasons: the company is fragmented; companies view customers as “segments;” companies cannot relate to customers outside of the lens of their own (existing) products; and, most interestingly for designers, they

persist in believing that the key to growth lies in identifying and satisfying customers’ needs and wants, or in providing solutions for the tasks and jobs it knows customers must take on and get done. The problem is that defining opportunities in terms of needs and wants—even unmet, latent, or unarticulated needs—is too narrow and simplistic a perspective. It misses the point, fails to anticipate the future, and tends to short-change the innovation and growth process.

Joachimsthaler says that instead of focusing on needs, we should focus on behaviors. Need fulfillment often fails to create new, unexpected products.

Joachimsthaler says differentiation and growth comes from

  • Positioning existing or new products and services at natural intersections of customers’ consumption and use behavior.
  • Changing or enhancing customers’ daily routines and creating transformative experiences around activities, projects, and tasks in new and welcome ways.
  • Delivering on previously unleashed or unarticulated desires, dreams, fantasies, and urges in the social-cultural context of people’s lives.

The rest of the book is mostly about how you go about doing just this, and case studies on companies who have done it.

It starts with “capturing the ecosystem of demand” by doing research in the field to uncover behaviors, then identifying opportunities, and finally creating a “strategic blueprint” to go after those opportunities. When doing research, Joachimsthaler says it is important to map daily activities and behaviors, and the context those occur in. “It’s not enough to grasp a pattern: you have to first break your assumptions about what the pattern might be and then strive to understand the logic or process that truly explains what’s going on.”

When identifying opportunities from research via brainstorming sessions, the goal is to potentially intersect the company’s capabilities with observed user behavior. Then, finally, defining the activities necessary to take advantage of those opportunities. “What matters,” Joachimsthaler writes, “is how you blend in or fit into the serial realities of customers’ lives and how customers absorb and assimilate an innovative product or service.”

To anyone who has done design strategy and research, this book might not be of much use, but it is a decent introduction for those who haven’t, especially non-designers.