Why customer insight is crucial in the fight against HIV: What I shared at AIDS 2018

August 8, 2018
Pact's Michelle Risinger presents at the Insight to Impact AIDS 2018 pre-conference.

The global development community has long referred to the people and institutions we serve as our beneficiaries. In truth, they’re also our partners and customers. That last word might sound a bit odd, but as the head of Pact’s innovation team, I see it as a critically important distinction. Although my innovation colleagues and I are embedded in a nonprofit NGO, we approach our work as a corporate research and development team. As a result, we intentionally frame our end user as a customer of our services, not as a beneficiary.

This is what I was asked to discuss at the recent 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, during a pre-event hosted by the OPTIONS Consortium, whose mandate is to expedite and sustain access to antiretroviral-based HIV prevention products. The purpose of the pre-conference, Insight to Impact, was to explore the intersection of public health science and marketing and communications, with a focus on a range of practices and activities that drive demand for HIV prevention.

I discussed insight generation, what market research is needed for HIV prevention, and how it should be used. These topics sync perfectly with Pact’s view of our end users as customers, as well as with my team’s mission, which is to create products and services that accelerate the impact of our traditional interventions. This of course includes interventions aimed at preventing the spread of HIV, and I feel strongly that customer insight is a crucial tool in this fight, especially at this point in our collective journey to end the epidemic.

Here is what I shared.

We view our end users as self-determining customers whose underlying incentives, motivations and drivers for decision making influence their understanding and usage of our products and services. This is critical because we acknowledge, based on behavioral science research, that decision making is not rational. Therefore, deeper, more empathic insights into our customers allow us to generate demand and create more intuitive products and services.

Today, the public health sector is a rigorously data-driven industry. Donor metrics tend to strongly emphasize achievements of targets, and success of programming tends to be translated in numbers and percentages. Additionally, the industry is nuanced by advances in scientific research, such as a promising drug or a lifesaving product, and this tends to encourage immediate deployment of lifesaving services over taking time to deeply understand how to make consumer uptake as efficient, empathetic and effective as possible. Although this reaction is certainly understandable, we must acknowledge that these drivers can shift the focus away from the customer.

And as we reach the upper percentiles of the 90-90-90 goals, we need new techniques, approaches and mindsets to understanding those last-mile end users, because there are reasons we have not reached them with traditional interventions. We must make it our mission to understand why, as well as what drives their incentives, motivations and decision making, and commit ourselves to offering the most intuitive and empathetic solutions possible.

And this is how insights are crucial.

Insights, defined

So what is an insight? In the Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice, Paul Laughlin defines an insight as “a non-obvious understanding of your end user, which, if acted upon, has the potential to change their behavior for mutual benefit.”

Let’s break this down.

Insights are non-obvious. This means we must triangulate evidence to glean them. First and foremost, we gather insights by talking to our customers. But insights are truly developed through triangulation of data desk research, observations, focus groups, key informant interviews and creative, nonverbal activities.

Insights must be actionable — you should be able to test an insight in practice. Customer insights should be powerful enough that, when acted upon, they can persuade people to change their behavior, because if your insight is correct and your deployment successful, you should solve an unmet need.

Finally, insights must be for mutual benefit. That is, both parties – the provider of products and services as well as the customer – must each receive benefit, and a degree of trust is built between the parties.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider this quote from Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon: “I’ve noticed when the anecdotes and the metrics disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. That’s why it’s so important to check that data with your intuition and instincts.”

From insight to impact

So how do insights become solutions?

Remember, one of the key features of an insight is that it is actionable. My colleagues and I ask ourselves ‘how might we?’ questions in order to turn insights into actions. 

For example, in Swaziland, where Pact works to increase rates of voluntary medical male circumcision, which helps prevent the spread of HIV, we uncovered the following insight: If boys wait for extended periods of time for bus transportation to the VMMC clinic, they grow increasingly anxious and scared of the procedure.

To make this insight actionable, we asked ourselves, how might we improve the travel experience to VMMC clinics for boys?

When we do this, we trigger a mental reflex known as instinctive elaboration. When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process and spurs the release of serotonin, which causes the brain to relax, making it most able to find answers and develop solutions. This is a much different thought process than the way we typically conduct our daily tasks.

You might think this is the most common-sense idea you’ve ever heard. But so much of how we go through our daily work is dictated by mindset. I would ask yourself, are we creating intentional time and spaces to solve problems? Are we challenging assumptions we may bring as technical experts in our fields? Do we inadvertently find ourselves seeking data that validates and confirms our assumptions and ideas?

With this mindset, we have a recipe for solving problems differently. By framing our beneficiary as a self-determining customer, we identify non-obvious, actionable insights for mutual benefit. We challenge our assumptions and reframe our insights to solve complex problems.

Let me close with another example, of one of the most powerful insights I have helped generate while at Pact.

I had traveled to Colombia, to visit women in artisanal mining communities where Pact works to reduce child labor in mines. Increasing economic opportunities for families is key to stemming child labor, so we were conducting a human-centered design exercise with the women to better understand how we might provide them with such opportunities.

Soon, our design team began to triangulate on the insight that, although the women most certainly wanted and needed greater income, they had been so traumatized by their experiences with guerilla FRAC and ELN soldiers that they ultimately did not want economic empowerment activities to succeed because they feared it would bring FARC and ELN back into their villages to demand a share of profits, as they had done in the past. This significant insight became the basis for all of our proposed solutions, ensuring that none would make communities feel vulnerable or susceptible to violence. This meant focusing less on individual, micro-enterprise activities and more on supply chain opportunities, co-opt farming and job training through existing government programs.

To this day, I haven't forgotten that insight. Amid the fast-paced nature of proposal design, those insights from our valued customers in Colombia remind us at Pact that putting the customer first is always the right path.