There’s no substitute for actually talking to real people about what they do and why. To better understand the behavior of your customers, go into the field to observe a group of current customers or the market in its natural state. Go on weekly shopping trips with customers. Witness surgical procedures live. Sit with call center reps to learn what they encounter and how they respond.

Field & Contextual Research

Rooted in anthropology, the ethnographic approach to qualitative research examines the culture of a business (e.g., Wells Fargo) or a defined group (e.g., Facebook users). The ethnographer becomes immersed in the culture as an active participant and takes extensive notes. Ethnographic research typically follows one of four methods: Participant and non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, and collected material. Remember, you don’t need to interview 1,000 people to glean valid guidance from qualitative ethnographic research. You can learn a great deal from just 20 individuals.

Descriptive Research

However, most businesses prefer a descriptive research approach although it does not fit neatly into the definition of either quantitative or qualitative research methodologies. Instead it can utilize elements of both, often within the same study. The term descriptive research refers to the type of research question, design, and data analysis that will be applied and is used to understand the current state — the feelings and opinions that exist among the population. An example of this is polling to determine what percent of the population would take one drug vs. another. Here, the intent is to find out what exists, not the “why.”

Within the research processes , sampling involves selecting units (e.g., people, organizations) from a population of interest (e.g. people who only use emergency room as their primary care) so that by studying the sample we may fairly generalize our results back to the larger population from which they were chosen.

Causal Research

Many studies don’t actually study cause-effect relationships. Like the forms of research described above, some only observe (e.g. what a person did when they first entered a bank) and some explore the structure of relationships — for example, whether there is a connection between an individual’s salary and their likelihood of becoming customer. However, it is important that we go beyond just looking at the world or looking at relationships. We would like to be able to influence customers. Through causal research, we can see how our causes, or actions — (e.g., programs, treatments) — affect the outcomes of interest (curing disease).

Another strength of causal research is that it can reveal a default position. Just because an individual does something in a certain way doesn’t always imply his desire do it that way. There may be no other option, or the alternative choice may not be known to the participant.

Participatory Research

For many companies, particularly in the field of software development or medical device manufacturing, participatory research can be the holy grail of customer understanding and differentiation. Customers participate in prototypes and deliver feedback, helping to ensure your products and solutions meet market needs in ways not met by the competition.

To recap:

  • The Voice of the Customer is nuanced
  • Think of your customers as people with concerns outside of your business, not merely as customers of your business
  • Find out why customers do what they do, their emotional drivers, behaviors, and intent
  • Small research samples are valid — you don’t need to interview thousands of customers
  • Map the demographic and contextual research against your own database and target market
  • Learn where you can build upon experiences to align them with how customers think and behave
  • Build solutions, services, or prototypes with target customers and problem-solve collaboratively

Don’t just assume you know what your customer would do or would want. Always do your research. Personas should be based on facts and therefore eliminate differences of opinion in a design team.

Developing Personas is an Important Part

Personas are fictional characters that represent archetypal users of your products or services. They’re extremely useful in framing the development of experiences because they force us to focus on the needs of people whose lives and preferences may be quite different from our own. User experience efforts can be evaluated and prioritized based on personal needs rather than personal opinions. Project stakeholders can ask “What would this persona do?” rather than “What would I do?” or “What would this persona want?” not “What do I want?”

In this way, personas also help resolve design issues and differences of opinion within a project team. They give all project stakeholders a common starting point for discussing a particular user archetype and how he/she may interact with a product, application or website.

To the greatest extent possible, personas are based on research-verified facts and queries covering a range of areas and interests that may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • User demographics including age, race, marital status, religion, education, etc.
  • User needs (may be specific to the product, website or application, or more general and associated with job function, living conditions, etc.)
  • The user’s role (may be specific to the product, website or application, or more general and associated with job function)
  • Personal and/or professional aspirations and goals
  • Daily habits
  • Attitudes toward technology, business, or culture

Understanding the voice of the customer is an ongoing process that takes discipline and patience. Far too many companies either don’t do it or don’t dive deep enough in the exploration. They worry about spending the resources and prolonging the development timeline. But we see time and time again that the more informed companies are about both quantitative and qualitative insights, the more effective the customer experience and the more sustainable the corporate ROI.