Andthen is a futures research and strategy consultancy studio based in Glasgow. We wanted to learn what futures research is, and how to convince clients to budget for something they may not understand. Jack sat down with designer and director of Andthen, Santini Basra, to find out.
Andthen is a futures research and strategy consultancy helping you to investigate social phenomena, uncover unique insights, and plan for the future. What does that mean exactly?
We’re a young company so we’ve gone through a few iterations of describing what we do. Basically we help companies who make products and services figure out what they should make next.
We do that by either talking to their customer base or a possible customer base and understanding what their needs are, or by investigating social trends and how social needs, behaviours and attitudes are changing.
When we talk about the future, sometimes it can be a 2 year lens or a 10 year lens. It really depends on what kind of company we’re working with. Bigger companies usually have long-term strategy plans, and smaller companies will only look 2 or 3 years ahead.
It’s hard to explain and that’s why we’ve gone through a lot of iterations of talking about what we do and understanding what sells. At the beginning I was going really hard on the futures stuff, and now I’ve pulled back on that a little bit and we talk more about strategy, design strategy and future research being a tool that helps us with design strategy.
I’m interested in hearing how you get clients on board with your approach. It sounds quite forward thinking. How do you convince clients they need to invest in futures research?
That’s been a big struggle because the kind of stuff we’re talking about isn’t normally budgeted for. Especially when we started, we used language like ‘futures research’ and that often freaks people out. Instead we have started to use more familiar terms, like ‘customer research.’ It is important to package it in language people are comfortable with.
We did try and chase clients in the beginning that didn’t understand what we did. That was a waste of time. Instead of trying to get clients onboard with what we do, we try to find clients that already understand that this is work that they need to do or understand that there’s value in this kind of stuff. Then we don’t have to spend time and energy in convincing them.
Other consultancies are often invited to tender for a job and then pitch for it, and that’s quite rare for us. Usually tenders go out for stuff like graphic design jobs, designing a website or well defined pieces of work. The briefs we end up working on often evolve after a long interaction with a client. You might meet a client and discuss with them the scope of a project over 6 months before starting that project rather than turning up and pitching in response to a brief they have already defined.
That’s the way we tend to get work. We develop briefs with clients over a period of time and then start work. So we mainly end up getting work through people we meet and networking.
You’re a young company. Did you start with the intention of being a futures research consultancy or has that evolved over time?
We started doing futures research stuff. I studied product design at Glasgow School of Art. Product design was the wrong term for what we did, it implies the design of physical artefacts, but really what we were doing wasn’t restricted to that medium, and I ended up learning more about how design could be used as a tool to understand and influence human behaviour.
I was interested in a subset of design called Speculative Design, which is where people design products or services that could exist in the future as a way to unpack and stimulate discussion around a particular issue, be it social, technological, political, or whatever.
I was really interested in Speculative Design for a while, but I soon became frustrated with how insular Speculative Design was. It was stuck in a gallery and in an academic space. All that work was just being exhibited on a plinth and only other designers were seeing it and talking about it.
After I graduated I ended up getting a job with the Glasgow School of Art; they were running something which looked a little like a consultancy project for Hitachi. Glasgow School of Art hired back some of their old grads, of which I was one, and mixed these with post-grad students to build a team.
The project was to forecast what certain sectors of the UK would look like in 10 years. Myself, with one other colleague were given a broad one—finance. What does finance look like in 2025? This is where it clicked, I was like, “This is kind of speculative design, this is designing products for the future but in a commercial context”.
After finishing that project I realised you could do future-oriented stuff, but it didn’t have to sit in a gallery. It could be used in client work. That’s where Andthen came from.
For a year I took up a position as a Designer-in-Residence at Glasgow School of Art and explored that. I ran a lot of futures workshops with the students as well as doing a bit of client work on the side, and after a while I set up Andthen, which has now been running for a year and a half.
How do you approach a typical project?
It depends on whether it’s a futures-oriented project. Whether the brief is like, “What’s the future of X going to be like in 2025?” as opposed to something a bit more now-oriented like, “Why are our customers buying our product or why do they like our brand?”. They’re different projects although the end objective is to inform design strategy. The output may be similar, but how you get there is different.
With the more futures-oriented projects, you always start with desk research, form some hypotheses and then go and test these hypotheses by engaging with people on the fringes of society.
If you think of some kind of behaviour that’s going to grow, then you go and find examples of that behaviour which exist now and just talk to those people. For example, we spent a bit of time a while back investigating Bitcoin. We spent a lot of time on the forums, buying Bitcoin and understanding how the system worked. That’s the kind of thing you do. You find these things that might grow, then you go and immerse yourself in that.
On the other end of the scale, if you’re investigating stuff that’s happening now it heavily involves engaging with and speaking to people. Speaking to customers, speaking to people who are interested in what the client’s asked you to investigate. And if it’s relevant, trying out things and experiencing things first hand.
Do a lot of businesses forget to talk to their customers?
Yeah. I think they don’t realise they don’t talk to their customers. Or they do surveys and they’re like, “Yeah, we just spoke to our customers and this is what they want”. They don’t understand that only a certain type of customer answers surveys, or they’ll only get a certain type of answer depending on how they structure the survey. People write yes or no survey answers because it’s easier to analyse, but these are the least useful.
People think they talk to their customers but they don’t truly understand them. There’s this problem of people sitting in a board room and hypothesising about what their customer wants or needs, but not really understanding them.
Most of the people reading this are designers and developers. What techniques could they take from futures research and apply to their work?
The core thing is understanding who is using, viewing or engaging with the thing you’re making. You’ve always got to focus on understanding that person. Whether that’s understanding one type of person or a range of people and why all those people have congregated around the one thing you’re making.
It sounds simple, but you just need to go and talk to them. Email them, set up a Skype call or visit them. You don’t even have to structure an interview—just talk to them about who they are.
It’s not a big revelation, but a lot of people don’t do it. Just go and have a conversation with those people. You don’t even have to ask them about your product, just ask them about who they are. If you do it enough you’ll understand why these people are congregating around what you’re making, or if you don’t have users you’ll understand why you don’t have users.
Once you have a good idea of who your customer base is, then you can start thinking about how these people needs, behaviours and attitudes are going to change over the next 2, 5, 10 or even 20 years. And that helps you act more proactively in the face of change.
What are you working on right now?
The big project we’ve got on now is with Mindfulness Everywhere. It’s a very open ended project. We’ve called it ‘Post-app Mindfulness’.
Mindfulness Everywhere are a digital mindfulness studio. They make mindfulness apps, but they don’t always want to make mindfulness apps, so we’re investigating the mindfulness and wellbeing space and trying to come up with ideas for new businesses and products that are more analogue or blended in nature. We’ve kept it quite vague, but we want to come up with some kind of mindfulness experience, product, or service. We’re only 3 weeks into the project, so we’re going to start speaking to a lot of people who are engaging in wellbeing activities whether they’re Mindfulness Everywhere users or just go running a lot. Then we’ll sign up for some local yoga and meditation classes as well as joining running and fitness groups. We’ll also go down to London and try out a big range of wellbeing experiences which we have found.
That’s when we’ll start coming up with ideas for new products or services and prototyping and testing them with people. It’s quite vague because the point of the brief was very open and explorative. We haven’t even decided what the deliverables will be. We’ll see where we end up in February when it finishes.
We’ve also just finished a project with Tens sunglasses. That was much more straightforward. They had internal questions they wanted to answer.
They wanted us to do some work in understanding who their customers are and why they like Tens. If they make changes to the Tens brand and products, they then have those customers in mind. That was much more straightforward in terms of Skyping with a lot of their customers.
We put together this range of ‘Tribes’—which is what we call groups of people with similar values or behaviours. You have these groups of people who are buying Tens sunglasses and their rough characteristics, why they found Tens and why they like Tens sunglasses.
They all have different values. Some people really engage with the Tens brand while others like the product because it’s technically great. It was interesting for Tens to understand what all these different types of people value and who to target, and if they’re going to target one or some of these ‘Tribes’ understanding what they’re interested in and where they can find them.