May 01 Why We Bring Clients Into Customer Research

One of the key phases within many of our projects is called “Discover, “where we gain a deeper understanding of the context, our client, their customers and competitors. It often involves ethnographic research.

We’ve written in great depth about our research practices, but in short there are two reasons why we conduct qualitative customer research.

// To gain a better understanding of customers in their context;

// To build empathy for customers, so we can better understand their needs as we develop solutions for them and work to improve their experience.

These goals are highly related, but sometimes there is tension between the two, especially as we work to help our clients build empathy with their customers.

Uncovering insights 

Our first goal in research is to uncover insights about customers.  We often do that via in-depth interviews with customers, observations, or shadowing. It is important in this research to learn about and discover customer behaviors, desires, motivations and activities. In many instances customers aren’t fully aware of these themselves or can’t articulate them well. This means as researchers we need to choose our methods carefully and design our research to eliminate bias to uncover latent truths.

Building empathy with customers

The second goal of our research is to build empathy with our customers. Empathy ensures that solutions we create will resonate with the customer and ultimately meet their needs. Because we believe in co-creation (developing ideas with our clients so they have input and ownership) this often means we aim to help our clients build empathy with their customers as well.

While our research can deliver rich insights to address unmet customer needs, empathy building is often an equally if not more powerful part of our research activities. So when appropriate, we bring clients along in our research, either by inviting them to observe our interactions with the customer via camera, or literally giving them a seat at the table during our interviews and sometimes even encouraging them to directly interact with the subject. For many of our clients, this might be the first time that they’ve spoken to their customers directly – and not just about their interactions with the company or product, but more broadly what drives them, what their life looks like, and how the company or product fits within their broader needs and activities. Bringing our clients into our research process can be a transformative experience – they begin to think from the customer perspective and evaluate their organization’s activities and decisions in a new light.

Balancing uncovering insights with building empathy:

Unfortunately, bringing our clients along in our research (when possible) can introduce bias. Having clients present in interviews can influence what customers may or may not say as well as how they say it. Inviting our clients to learn about the ethnographic research process and participate in it brings novices into what is a complex territory navigated by expert researchers, including asking the right questions, observing the right details, and connecting seemingly disparate ideas in a meaningful way. Risking this bias introduces a greater challenge for us as researchers, but we feel that the empathy created between customer and client outweighs the effort and potential risk introduced.

We know that when clients get to hear from customers first-hand they remember their faces, their names, and their stories. The difference is tangible in sessions where we work to develop, prototype and prioritize ideas – when clients have participated in customer interviews they stand up for their customers and remember their needs. It is not uncommon to hear “Well, I’m not sure how well that concept would work for Rebecca” or “Does that really help someone with needs like Aaron?” in one of our ideation sessions with clients. And while that may introduce some slight bias into the equation, we’d argue that helping our clients become more customer-focused and empathetic is worth it.

Ashley Thorfinnson
Ashley Thorfinnson

Ashley is a Sr. Strategist, who employs a human-centered, collaborative approach to create better experiences, interactions and environments for people and organizations.