NIC Notes

Insights in Seniors Housing & Care

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By: NIC  |  November 15, 2019

Driving Innovation Through Consumer Insights

Ideas and Discussion  |  Market Trends  |  Seniors Housing

A mop and a café might not sound innovative to most seniors housing operators. But when presented with the product development strategy that conceived the successful Swiffer® cleaning tool and the Capital One® banking cafés, attendees at the 2019 NIC Fall Conference learned that the process for true innovation applies across all industries.

Maria Nadelstumph, vice president of organizational development and program excellence at Brandywine Living, moderated the session “Activating Consumer Insights: Lessons from Other Industries,” while Heather Reavey, head of innovation delivery, EPAM Continuum, and Jennifer Windbeck, managing vice president, market experience, Capital One Cafés and Branches, described the processes used at their companies to generate breakout innovations.

Reavey and Windbeck work in different industries, on very different products, yet the product innovation process they employed to launch the successful Swiffer WetJet™ mop and Capital One Cafés, respectively, involved a common thread—consumer insight. They shared thoughts on how consumer insights can, and should, be used in the seniors housing industry to develop fresh ideas that go beyond iterating current offerings.

Consumer insight research often guides product development in industries like hospitality and consumer products. Yet it is not as prevalent today in seniors housing. While there is consensus that the baby boomer generation desires a different seniors housing experience than their parents have, there is no consensus on what they want. And that’s where innovation comes in. 

Reavey and Windbeck shared the business success achieved at their companies by investing in consumer research as a first step in the product development process. The research allowed them to better anticipate consumer needs, and allowed insights to drive innovative ideas.

According to Reavey, generating ideas is easy. “The real challenge of innovation is getting things out into peoples’ homes,” she said. She advised that the first step in successful product innovation is to define and deeply understand the problem your product will solve. 

“The only way that we really have confidence in our ideas, is if we know the problem that they're solving. And we feel confident that the problem is really relevant to people. If we can solve that problem, people are going to buy our product instead of the competitive products. It's going to be differentiated.”

EPAM Continuum, a global innovation, design, and development firm, practices human-centered design. They spend time with people in order to really understand what they care about and what the meaningful challenges are in their lives. In their consumer insight framework, they focus on a person’s emotional side rather than functional needs.

“Usually when people tell us about their functional needs, it will give us clues on how to iterate something that exists today,” noted Reavey. “What we like to focus on is the emotional side, because that’s what drives innovation.”

Reavey used the example of asking a person about a blender. She described how a person will default to talking about their functional needs for a blender—a quieter motor or a blade that is easier to clean, for example. But she maintains that if the conversation starts at a broader level—talking about what the person cares about in life—it may lead to answers that indicate the person cares about preparing healthy food, or even that they don’t want to use a blender at all and prefer to eat out.

“That's where the innovation comes from. It’s really understanding what your audience cares about in life and not in the category that you're exploring. Your job is to then connect what they care about in life to your category.”

Windbeck’s experience at Capital One followed a similar process—speaking to consumers about personal preferences.

“We decided to start from scratch in reimagining the in-person banking experience. We threw out everything we ever knew about branch banking,” she said. They started with a “what if” perspective in their consumer research, rather than a focus on what already existed.

Capital One also knew that not every customer would be drawn to the café concept. “We were okay that this would not be the bank for everyone. We were designing for a very specific persona and a very specific behavioral identity group.”

In both cases, the teams at EPAM and Capital One designed successful products that the consumers didn’t necessarily know they wanted.

Reavey suggested that to apply these methods in seniors housing, companies should start by speaking to consumers who aren’t involved with seniors housing now. We should talk to potential future users, with no preconceived ideas. She noted that employees can provide thoughtful insights as well.

The panelists then offered advice on the potential time and expense involved with consumer insight research. “When you think about things like innovation and user experience, it can feel a little bit fluffy. That's not the case here. We are doing [this] to differentiate ourselves from competitors,” said Windbeck. “We are a for-profit company and so we are doing this in order to drive profits.”

Reavey also noted that there are ways to innovate without huge expense, “Sometimes we make innovation much bigger in our heads than it needs to be. We think that it's going to take years and we're going to need millions of dollars in investment. You can do a lot of iteration really fast and cheap just by being creative about figuring out how to fake it before you make it.”

She applied that thinking to seniors housing and suggested that instead of believing you need to innovate a whole complex or building, start with a pamphlet and get feedback on your ideas on that scale. Windbeck also suggested allowing workforce teams to go beyond surfacing ideas, and give them parameters within which they can innovate and test ideas on site.

“Do inexpensive, quick prototyping and use data and hard results to be able to say, ‘Here's what we tried, here's how it worked. Here's what this could look like at scale’," advised Reavey.

Nadelstumph closed the session by reminding attendees of the value of innovation in seniors housing, “There's a lot of opportunity here. So let's stop building on best practices and let's get a little bit more creative to drive the business.”

About NIC

For over 25 years, the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) has been committed to advancing the quality and availability of seniors housing and care options for America's elders — the demographic cohort of age 75-plus totaling 19.2 million and a sector with a market value of approximately $330 billion — through research, education and increased transparency that facilitate informed investment decisions, quality outcomes and leadership development in seniors housing and care.

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