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Sales & Marketing

November 20, 2015

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The Ugly Truth About Customer Research (and What To Do About It)

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I am a strong advocate of customer research. For my entire career I have been encouraging my clients to do more and better customer research – to develop a deeper understanding of customer needs and opportunities. Unfortunately, it is relatively easy to go through the motions of customer research, but much harder to gather useful insights through the process.

The simple truth is that much of what passes for customer research actually guides research participants to lie, usually without anyone being aware that it is happening.

“People lie,” is what TV’s Dr. House often repeated. It is true, but not necessarily in the cynical way he meant. What people say can often depart from the truth for a variety of very innocent reasons. Awareness of these tendencies can make the difference between quality insights and misinformation.

Here are three of the most important ones.

1. People are very bad at predicting how they would behave in future or hypothetical situations.

Often our participants lie because we are asking them impossible questions. Any question that includes “would” is almost impossible to answer accurately. “Would you be interested in a product that helps you save money, lose weight and look sexier? What answer will you get? How useful is that answer?” “What would you do if confronted by a wild monkey in a department store?” The only honest answer is “I have absolutely no idea, ” unless of course you have experienced that situation in the past (more on that later).

If you ask someone what they “usually” do or how they “normally” go about doing something and they respond completely honestly, the result will be something between incomplete and completely false. This is because we are simply not aware of all of our behaviour and even less of our motivation. We all carry blind spots and forgetful moments. We couldn’t get through a day if we actually paid attention to and retained everything we did. There is very little difference between asking what you would do and what you normally do, both questions place us in a mode of imagining a hypothetical, typical situation rather than anything real and concrete.

It is your job as designer, innovator, entrepreneur, or product marketer to assess the answer and find the solution that fills the gap. Don’t ask your customer to do your job for you.

2. People tend to paint themselves in the best light when answering questions.

Even though it shouldn’t matter what some random researcher or survey thinks about us, the vulnerability of sharing even mundane information about our lives makes us report our best selves or even the selves we wish we were. The more artificial the situation, the more we take on a role that departs from our day-to-day existence. Once I see myself as a “respondent” or a “shopper” or a “father,” I start to answer how that role should answer more than how I really am.

This is especially true in group settings, where the tendency to follow along with the majority opinion is strong and a single dominant figure often defines the “truth” for the whole group. This is one of the main criticisms of focus groups as a methodology.

This gets even trickier when you consider that “best light” varies from person to person and in different situations. For one person it may mean hiding an embarrassing secret to avoid standing out. For someone else it may be exaggerating that same embarrassment in order to be more interesting or special. In either case, the truth is distorted.

3. People tend to create rational explanations for irrational behaviour. 

Much of our behaviour is irrational. We impulse buy, procrastinate, fall in love, and eat unhealthy food in spite of our best efforts and our full knowledge of what we should do. But when we verbalise our behaviour, we add on a layer of rational interpretation that is usually complete fabrication. “Yes, I had a second cupcake, but I only ate salad at lunch and I am playing tennis tomorrow so…”

What to do about it

So what can you do to avoid these traps? The answer is the trade secret of effective customer research pros, but here are a few tips that can keep you on the path toward insight more often than not.

1. Focus as much on rapport as content.

Every research interview is a relationship. The more you can put people at ease by interviewing in their natural context and building a conversational rapport, the more accurate and rich your information will be. When you can help people feel like they are just talking – not being examined or having information extracted – the real stories start flowing.

2. Remove “would” from your questioning vocabulary.

If you want to know what someone would do, find out what they did do in the past and present. Instead of “how much would you pay for that?” ask, “How much are you paying now?” or “What are you doing now to deal with that?” Then you can move on to how much that effort is worth. Along similar lines, never ask for opinions unless you just feel the need to be lied to.

3. Look for “desire lines”.

If you aren’t asking people what they would like to have in the future, how can you figure out what to give them? You look for “desire lines,” the expressions of pain, unmet need, and desire that come through in the description of what happens now. Those are where the opportunities lie for new products, changed services and different messages that will easily capture your customer’s eye.

4. Redirect toward specific and past experiences.

Never believe what people say they would do at face value. As soon as someone starts talking about what they normally do, shift them to a specific, past event. “When did that happen most recently?” “What did you do? Walk me through it?” As soon as people start going into specific instances and what they actually did, they tend to stay much more real. The roles fall away as they observe themselves from their memory.

5. Observe directly when possible.

Base your insights on what people actually do, not what they say they do. If you get the chance to actually observe people doing what you are exploring, you can find out so much more. I have watched people tell me what they would do in a situation and then do exactly the opposite in observed study. In a few cases I had to show video of the observation to convince the person they actually did what they did!

6. Watch out for your own biases.

Of course, what is true of participants is true of the people who undertake research (we are all human after all). It is similarly easy to fool yourself into rationalisation of evidence and confirmation bias. One of the best ways to avoid this trap is to work in pairs and debrief in groups. The additional points of view will help catch you out on your assumptions and differentiate between intuitive gut feel and confirmation bias.

There is no 100% certainty in customer research, but by being aware of these traps you can do a better job in your own customer research and spot weaknesses in research from third parties.