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User Research at the Extremes: How Coloplast Gets Insights on Taboo Subjects

Getting users to open up on sensitive subjects is as essential as it is difficult. Here’s how the team at Coloplast uses remote research to get it done.


You’re biking home after a long day’s work when a car pulls out of its driveway right as you pass by. It’s too late to stop and it backs into you. Not hard—just enough to send you off your bike and onto the pavement.

Luckily, you wore your helmet. But it’s not enough to stop you from getting knocked unconscious. You wake up at the hospital the next day. A doctor informs you that, along with a few scrapes and bruises, you sustained some nerve damage to your spine.

You still retain the function of your legs and arms. However, the injuries caused something called Neurogenic Bladder Disorder. The disorder means the nerves that control the muscles involved in your urination are underactive, meaning you have little voluntary control.

The doctor explains to you that this can be managed in a number of ways such as adult diapers or pads. However, those can be bulky, cumbersome, and indiscrete. That’s not even mentioning the stigma that’s associated with them.

There is another solution, though. One that allows you to discreetly manage this issue with dignity and respect.

Coloplast designs these solutions.

Founded in 1957, Coloplast provides ostomy, urinary, wound, and skin care products for users with “intimate healthcare needs.” Some of their customers represent the most vulnerable users in the world. As such, empathy for patients permeates all aspects of the company culture and design team.

“Coloplast has a rich history of having quite a close relationship with the people who use its products,” explains one of the company’s Senior User Researchers, Matt Dexter. “From our very inception through to now, we’ve always had a relationship with the people who use our products.”

Their emphasis on empathy takes them into the most intimate settings of their users’ lives. As such, they need to approach everything with the utmost care and consideration.

It makes sense. The types of products that Coloplast designs—catheters, stoma bags, wound dressings—are all created for some peoples’ most traumatizing and, frankly, embarrassing issues.

To design and research for their users, they often need to leverage in-person observation. Though coming face-to-face with their users for research is ideal and can provide incredible insights, it’s not easy to scale—especially when their team is only a handful of people.

Lilith Louise Lysgaard Hasbeck and Matt Dexter are...

...the Head of User Research and Senior User Researcher at Coloplast respectively. Between the two of them, they have more than 20 years’ experience in design and research.”

User research at Coloplast is...

...empathetic and diverse. Though their immediate team is small, they draw from a wide assortment of backgrounds to do their work like traditional UXR, industrial design, anthropology, and service design.

The challenge:

Like it or not, conditions that require solutions such as catheters and ostomy bags can be embarrassing to demonstrate and discuss. They’re matters that can greatly impact the way a person completes day-to-day tasks many able-bodied people take for granted like going to the store for groceries, having drinks with friends, or simply meeting up with someone for dinner.

In many cases, it can impact their dignity and mental well-being.

The innovation project teams at Coloplast are incredibly cognizant of this. They know they must approach design and research in vastly different ways than teams dealing with other design problems.

“The way we access our users greatly affects the methods that we use,” Matt explains. “I’ve worked in places where you could do guerrilla research and you can access people that use your product quickly.”

“But with [Coloplast] it’s the exact opposite because of the taboo that is associated with a lot of our products. They cut to the very core of what it means to be a human being or a functioning adult. People don’t want to be outed. So, we don’t want to out people as a catheter user, or an ostomate, or somebody living with a hard to heal wound.”

That’s why they’ve embedded empathy into the backbone of all of their design and research processes. A key aspect of treating these users with respect comes in the form of privacy.

“As an example, we record our interviews on iPod Touches,” Matt explains. “Not because they are great recording devices, but it’s so that it’s completely encrypted from the moment we hit record to the moment we upload the data to Denmark, or it’s captured on a secure hard drive.”

But due to the nature of their products, traditional research methods like interviews and surveys aren’t enough. They need to be able to observe their users in their everyday lives. “Something that we really want to do is go and live with [our users],” Matt explains.

But these methods can only go so far—especially when they need to design for a globalized market. In fact, their research has taken them to markets such as Spain, Russia, Brazil, Korea, and Japan. The goal isn’t necessarily to design products that are perfect for each of these markets. But to design products that can service the most users as possible.

With a fairly small team, though, the task can be daunting. Coloplast wants to find a way to research in an agile way without sacrificing the depth of their insights.

In short, they needed to innovate.

“…a very senior member of the company declared that he’d learned things that he hadn’t seen after decades of manufacturing these products. This was only possible because of the videos that captured actual real-life use. There’s a real difference between being told something and seeing something for yourself.”

The solution:

For Coloplast to take their research to the next level, they’ve leveraged remote tools like audio, photos, and video to complement their traditional face-to-face research. Doing so sometimes provides for even more groundbreaking and innovative research insights as well.

“A little over a year ago, I led a significant piece of research where we asked some of our users to film themselves using our product in a very intimate setting”, recalls Lilith. “It was quite the undertaking in terms of research design, but it had such a great impact on our understanding of what it means to be a user of our products. This was to such an extent that a very senior member of the company declared that he’d learned things that he hadn’t seen after decades of manufacturing these products.”

“This was only possible because of the videos that captured actual real-life use. There’s a real difference between being told something and seeing something for yourself.”

Focusing on the value brought by mobile, video, and photos, they are looking ahead at how to scale empathy at the company through research. And though, they’re looking to expand and democratize empathy, their commitment to privacy is still top of mind throughout.

“When we capture video,” says Lilith, “we never film people’s faces to be as anonymous as possible.”

Case study: Get it on tape

Matt: The thing I found in most organizations I previously worked with is that what gets measured gets done. That means that at the top of the apex is quant. At Coloplast, though, I found that at the tip of the apex is the story or the narrative.

We’re working on a project now where we had a really big piece of quant research done. It involved 150 professional users in eight different countries. They were presented with some prototypes. They ranked their favorites. What we found was even though our engineers had done some wizardry and come up with some awesome concepts, the quantitative data set said that they preferred what was already on the market.

That picture was confusing because it didn’t match up with other data points we had. So the question becomes, ‘What’s going on?’ We conducted an observational study with some professional users that hadn’t been a part of the quant study with a small sample of eight users. We immediately saw a disconnect between part of the quant study. Immediately the difference became apparent.

We were able to use that qualitative data that we found as a lens by which we could understand the more confusing aspects of the quantitative data that we’d got. And what would happen in another organization is if you had that quant data, you might risk making the incorrect decision of sticking with what you already got because 150 people across eight countries say it’s good enough. Whereas all it takes is a well-designed qualitative study to reframe the data on hand so that you can see what the next step is. That’s the real value to our team.

And the deliverable that changed the whole process came down to the a two-minute video reel. Two minutes redefined the entire scope of that project.”

The impact:

Recognizing the need to scale their research while remaining respectful of their users’ dignity and struggles, the user research team at Coloplast is embracing remote innovation with open arms.

Doing so not only allows them to democratize empathy and insights throughout their company, but it also brings their research to areas of the world they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.

“I think Coloplast is a great place to work in a lot of ways because of its real hunger for research,” Matt says.

Lilith agrees saying, “It’s the continuous growth of the team along with an organization that’s also growing and expanding to different markets as well. We’re just making sure that we also grow as the company grows.”

Tony Ho Tran

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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