Sherizan Sheikh is a Design Lead at Grab Ventures, an incubation arm that looks at experiences beyond ride-hailing, for example, groceries, healthcare and autonomous deliveries.

Grab Ventures is where exciting initiatives are birthed in Grab. From strategic partnerships like GrabFresh, Grab’s first on-demand grocery delivery service, to exploratory concepts such as on-demand e-scooter rentals, there has never been a more exciting time to be in this unique space.

Cover GrabFresh

 

In my role as Design Lead for Grab Ventures, I juggle between both sides of the coin and whether it’s a partnership or exploratory concept, I ask myself:

“How do I know who my customers are, and what are their pain points?”

So I like to answer that question by starting with traditional research methods like desktop research and surveys, just to name a few. At Grab, it’s usually not enough to answer those questions.

That said, I find that some of the best insights are formed from immersion trips.

In one sentence, an immersion trip is getting deeply involved in a user’s life by understanding him or her through observation and conversation.

Our CEO, Anthony Tan, picking items for a customer, on an immersion trip. Our CEO, Anthony Tan, picking items for a customer, on an immersion trip.

 

For designers and researchers in Singapore, it plucks you out of your everyday reality and drops you into someone else’s, somewhere else, where 99.9% of the time, everything you expect and anticipate gets thrown out in a matter of minutes. I’ve trained myself to switch my mindset, go back to basics, and learn (or relearn) everything I need to know about the country I’d be visiting even if I’ve been there countless times.

Fun fact: In 2018, I spent about 100 days in Indonesia. That means roughly 30% of 2018 was spent on the ground, observing, shadowing, interviewing people (and getting stuck in traffic) and loving it.

Why immersions?

Understanding one’s country, culture and her people is something that gets me excited as I continuously build empathy visit upon a visit, interview after interview.

I remembered one time during an immersion trip, we interviewed locals at different supermarkets to learn and understand their motivations: why they prefer to visit the supermarket vs purchasing them online. One of our hypotheses was that the key motivator for Indonesians to buy groceries online must be down to convenience. We were wrong.

It boiled down to 2 key factors.

1) Freshness: We found out that many of the locals still felt the need to touch and feel the products before they buy. There were many instances where they felt the need to touch the fresh produce on the shelves, cutting off a piece of fruit or even poking the eyes of the fish to check its freshness.

Oranges

 

2) Price: The de-facto for most locals as they are price-sensitive. Every decision was made with the price tag in mind. They are willing to travel far, spend the time to go through the traffic just to get to the wet or supermarket that offers the lowest prices and value for money. Through observations, while shadowing at a local wet market, we also found something interesting. Most of the wet market vendors are getting WhatsApp messages from their regular customers seeking fresh produce and making orders. The transactions were mostly via e-wallets or bank transfers. The vendors then packed them and get bike drivers to help with the delivery. I couldn’t have gotten this valuable information if I was just sitting at my desk.

An immersion trip is an excellent opportunity to learn about our customers and the meaning behind their behaviours. There is only so much we can learn from white papers and reports. As soon as you are in the same environment as your users, seeing your users do everyday errands or acts, like grocery shopping or hopping on a bike, feeling their frustrations and experiencing them yourself, you’ll get so much more fruitful and valuable insights to help shape your next product. (Or even, improve an existing one!)

My colleagues trying to blend in. My colleagues trying to blend in.

 

Now that I’ve sold you on this idea, here are some tips on how to plan and execute effective immersion trips, share your findings and turn them into actionable insights for your team and stakeholders.

Pro tip #1 - Generate a hypothesis

Generating a hypothesis is a valuable exercise. It enables you to focus on the “wants vs. needs” and to validate your assumptions beyond desktop research. Be sure to get your core team members together, including Business, Ops and Tech, to generate a hypothesis. I’ll give an example below.

Pro tip #2 - Have short immersion days with a debrief at the end for everyone

Scheduling really depends on your project. I have planned for trips that are from a few hours to up to fourteen days long. Be sure not to have too many locations in a single day and spread them out evenly in case there are unexpected roadblocks such as traffic jams that might contribute to rushed research.

Do include Brief and Debrief sessions into your schedule. I’d recommend shorter immersion days so that you have enough energy left for the critical Debrief session at the end of the day. The structure should be kept very simple with focus of collating ALL observations from the contextual inquiries you did into writing. It’s actually up to you how you structure your document.

Be prepared for the unexpected. Be prepared for the unexpected.

 

Pro tip #3 - Recce locations beforehand

Once you’ve nailed down the locations, it is essential for you to get a local resident to recce the places first. In Southeast Asia, more often than so would you realise that information found online is unreliable and misleading, so doing a physical recce will save you a lot of time.

I had experienced a few time-wasting incidents when we did not expect specific locations to be what was intended. For example, while on our grocery-run, we wanted to visit a local wet market that opens only very early in the morning. We got up at 5 am, drove about 1.5 hours and only to realize the wet market is not open to the public and we eventually got chased out by the security guards.

Pro tip #4 - Never assume a customer’s journey

(even though you’ve experienced it before as a customer)

One of the most important processes throughout a product life cycle is to understand a customer’s journey. It’s particularly important to understand the journey if we are not familiar with the actual environment. Take our GrabFresh service as an example. It’s a complex journey that happens behind the scenes. Desktop research might not be enough to fully validate the journey hence, an immersion trip that allows you to be on the field will ensure you go through the lifecycle of the entire process to observe and note all the phases that happen in the real environment.

GrabFresh user journey

 

Pro tip #5 - Be 100% sure of your open-ended, non-leading questions that will validate your hypothesis.

This part is an essential piece to the quality of your immersion outcome. Not spending enough time crafting or vetting the questions thoroughly might end up with skewed insights and could jeopardise your entire immersion. Please be sure your questions links up with your hypothesis and provide backup questions to support your assumptions.

For example, don’t suggest answers in questions.

Bad: “Why do you like this supermarket? Cheap? Convenient?”

Good: “Tell me why you chose this particular supermarket?”

Pro tip #6 - Break into smaller groups of 2 to 3. Dress comfortably and like a local. Keep your expensive belongings out of sight.

During my recent trip, I visited a lot of places that unknowingly had very tight security. One of the mistakes I made was going as a group of 6 (foreign-looking, and - okay -  maybe a little touristy with our appearances and expensive gadgets).

Out of nowhere, once we started approaching customers for interviews, and snapping photos with our cameras and phones, we could see the security teams walking towards us. Unfortunately, we were asked to leave the premises when we could not provide a permit.

As luck would have it, we eyed a few customers and approached them when they were further away from the original location. Success!

Pro tip #7 - Find translators with people skills and interview experience.

Most of my immersion trips are overseas, where English is not the main language. I get annoyed at myself for not being able to interview non-English speaking customers. Having seasoned, outgoingtranslators does help a lot! If you feel awkward standing around waiting for a translated answer, feel free to step away and let the translator interview the customer without feeling pressured. Be sure it’s all recorded for transcription later.

Insights + Action plan= Strategy

Findings are significant, it’s the basis of everything that you do while you are in immersion. But what’s more important is the ability to connect those dots and extract value from them. It’s similar to how we can amass tons of raw data but entirely pointless if nothing is done with it.

A good strategy usually comes from good insights that are actionable.

For example, we found out that a % of customers that we interviewed did not know that GrabFresh has a pool of professional shoppers who pick grocery items for customers. Their impression was that a driver would receive their order, drive to the location, get out of their vehicle and go into the store to do the picking. That’s not right. It hinders customers from making their first purchase through the app.

Observing a personal shopper interacting with Grab driver-partner. Observing a personal shopper interacting with Grab driver-partner.

 

So, in this case, our hypothesis was: if customers are aware of personal shoppers, the number of orders will increase.

This opinion was a shared one that may have had an impact on our business. So we needed to take this back to the team, look at the data, brainstorm, and come up with a great strategy to improve the perception and its impact on our business (whether good or bad).

Wrapping Up

After a full immersion, it is always important to ask each and every member of some of these questions:

“What went well? What did you learn?”

“What can be improved? If you could change one thing, what would it be?”

I’d usually document them and have a reflection for myself so that I can pick up what worked, what didn’t and continue to improve for my next immersion trip.

Following the Double Diamond framework, immersion trips are part of the “Discover”phase where we gather customer insights. Typically, I follow up with a Design sprint workshop where we start framing the problems. This is where we have a session where experts and researchers share their domain knowledge and research insights uncovered from various methodologies including immersions.

Then, hopefully, we will have some actionable changes that we can execute confidently.

So, good luck, bring some sunblock and see you on the ground!

If you’d like to connect with Sherizan, you can find him on LinkedIn.