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Trends Analysis: Maximizing Utility and Minimizing B.S.

“Trends analysis is all flash and no substance.” This is a fairly common comment I’ve heard from colleagues and acquaintances regarding the practice of observing trends in the world around us. Honestly, I can’t fault this sentiment.

There are many services that portray trend analysis as an illusive and mysterious discipline. These services tend to title their themed observations with concoctions of prefixes and suffixes swirling around provocative nouns and verbs. (Dis-Gaga-ification! Visionary Blindness!) Even more disconcerting, many trendwatchers counterintuitively underscore the validity of these trends by expressing them with niche-y anecdotes and precious subcultures. (“Look what those crazy kids from [insert affluent country] are doing!”)

This approach isn’t all bad. Describing complex value shifts with sticky mnemonics can be helpful. Plenty of valid and emerging trends don’t have enough data points to defend their existence without resorting to anecdotes.  However, trend analysis cannot predict the future with certainty. Nor can an organization obtain an authentic aura of hipness by indiscriminately adopting the findings of trend hunters, no matter how enthusiastically they may be expressed. I don’t mean to suggest trendwatchers are disingenuous or purposely misleading.

Rather, the real problem with many trends services is their lack of rigor in applying trends to business and strategy problems. Because of this, they may have little utility outside of superficial design recommendations.

Creating meaningful design requires an organization to understand the world around them, where their interests fit into it and how they can appropriately respond to shifting needs and influences. Determining which trends are relevant to an organization’s situation and strategy is key.

So, is trends analysis valuable?

Essentially, trends describe a shift in a value expression over time. One powerful feature of trends analysis is its ability to assess and describe the context of an entity’s position in the world. The relevancy of a trend to an organization can be based on many factors, including probability and longevity. Questions that frame these trend factors include:

What are the unstoppable drivers that affect a company or organization’s circumstances? (E.g., global population booms; increasing scarcity of resources.)

What are trends that express reactions to these driving trends? (E.g., implementations of efficient product design; corporate responsibility initiatives.)

What are the more transitory and sometimes conflicting trends that, while less momentous, influence consumer and product experiences? (E.g., consumers’ need for tradition in an unstable world; products and experiences that provide whimsy and delight against a background of economic austerity.)

Asking these questions will identify specific trends that can be weighed against criteria that measure their affect upon an organization’s strategy. Probability and longevity are important considerations to analyze in the context of a project or initiative’s time frame. But so are factors like an organization’s willingness to take on risk and the alignment of a trend’s values with a company’s brand. (A semiconductor manufacturer may not be particularly concerned about fashion trends in Japan.) Once an organization has determined its situation within the context of these trends, they can begin to use them to their advantage.

What can the application of trends analysis do?

While trend analysis cannot prove the future, it can inspire product design and strategic direction. Successful trends analysis helps organizations carefully discern which trends are appropriate for driving genuine innovation.

For example, trends analysis can help organizations develop action plans similar to SWOT analysis. By comparing an organization’s strengths and weaknesses with a set of relevant externalities, trends analysis opens up discussions about where to go or how to proceed. It shows directionality in trend factors like consumers’ values, use habits, as well as market movements relevant to the client’s product category.

The analysis process also generates questions designed to fill gaps in organizational knowledge that can determine appropriate strategies. In turn, these questions help organizations decide whether to build upon current strengths in response to beneficial trends or mitigate present weaknesses in the face of challenging trends.

Trends analysis invites improvement and inspiration

The outcome of a more targeted approach to trends analysis is not one of simply being in-the-know, but being empowered to deliver inspired, informed and innovative design. It requires an organization to be frank about its strengths and weaknesses so it can mitigate challenges, improve its existing situation and explore exciting opportunities. With this approach, trends analysis is less about style and more about substance. To put it another way: It’s about utility, not b.s.


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