Category Archives: Customer insights

User research is valuable. Now get on with it.

It’s official, customer insights lead to better products.

During 2014 I noticed a proliferation of articles like this one (McKinsey) championing user research as a somewhat untapped source of design inspiration and product innovation.

It’s no surprise with ‘design thinking’ infecting the corporate world with it’s 5-step process, beginning of course with … understanding the customer. (Thanks d-school)

So while the business and design worlds are falling in love with customers problems, healthcare and other public sector services are adopting a user centred approach, why is user research still flirting and wanting to be noticed?

User Research UX design researchGoogle have a stab at answering this question in their article ‘What fuels great design and why most startups don’t do it?

Through my own experience I can vouch all these barriers exist, but they are increasingly being broken down, and if the UK government can be wrangled into shape (good work to @leisa, @jwaterworth & the team at GDS) then … the future has never looked brighter.

So with the world we’ve been trying to win-over for so long realising (and exercising) the value of this work, being all ‘empathy‘ and ‘get out of the office‘. And with armies of corporates tasting the design thinking kool-ade during half-day versions of ‘ethnography’ … then coming back for more … it would seem our day has come. No?

Let’s put the years of ‘broken record’ evangelism of UX and bangings-on about how valuable our role is to bed and redirect this energy into delivering value.

Well, that’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.

Will you join me?

Nick.

Curious? Go cold turkey to gobble the insights

Curiosity is one of a UX researcher’s most valuable traits, but it’s also a vulnerable one, because it can be dissolved by a little knowledge.

I’ve found it’s handy to have a few hunches in my back pocket, but when I’m trying to understand a customer – the less I know about them, the more curiosity I’ll need to find out.

Wary of this, I work hard to defend my naiveté, particularly during the early stages of a project. I’ll try to be selective about what information I take on the road, and what I leave parked in the office…

Here’s an example of how I try to maintain my curiosity:

At kick-off, I usually help my clients brief a recruiter with criteria to fetch a representative sample of customers*. The recruiter provides a schedule and participant list with granular details of every participant – name, address and three contact methods will be their demographics, customer type, attitudes and attributes which were collected when they were screened. It’s an eye-bleeder, but part of the process.

Design-research-spreadsheet

A recruiter typically provides an ugly-but-data-packed spreadsheet with more than you need to know.

During this process I invariably learn about customer segments, what they mean to the business and a taste of the client’s base level understanding of their customer. It gives some insight into each person I’ll meet, but I find it’s better not to know at this stage.

Start with a blank canvas.

To defend my curiosity, I pick only three of these details** to stick to the car dashboard:

  1. Time of appointment
  2. First name
  3. Address
Spare the details: I leave all the other customer information in the office and out of mind.

Spare the details: I only take the basics on the road.

I do this because…

I want to interview a person, not a ‘customer segment’…

Because I’m starting the interview with such minimal information, I let the customer paint me a picture which brings all those details the surface, and it’ll take every bit of my curiosity to draw them out.

It’s a small detail, but I believe this makes a big difference to the pace and direction of the interview.

For example – on my current project, we’re interviewing a mix of three customer types; subscribers, non-subscribers and ex-subscribers. All three are relevant and I don’t want to be pigeon-holing them in my mind before I’ve walked in the door, or for them to feel like ‘they’ve been picked for a reason’.

If I know she’s an ex-customer, a part of me will be wondering, “why did she cancel her subscription?” I’ll be looking for clues, reading between the lines and may draw this to the surface before she’s had a chance to fully describe her context. Or she might detect I’m on this thread and defend her reasons for leaving the service, which isn’t what I want to hear.

… so I prefer to go in ‘cold-turkey’, letting these details all come out ‘in the wash’ in the customers words as part of a natural, unbiased conversation. (at least, that’s the way I want it to feel for the customer).

There’s plenty of time for answers later, these are valuable and expected outputs of any design research project, but I’ve found NOT knowing the answer is the best possible position to be in when you’re heading into the field to interview and observe people interacting with your product.

This is part of trusting your instinct as a researcher, being comfortable with ambiguity and being ‘in the dark’.

Earlier in the year I wrote about how a Calligrapher / Monk / and Ex- Xerox PARC innovation researcher approaches these uncomfortable research situations: Humble pie, served on a bed of chaos.

…but he doesn’t mention being in the dark with a cold turkey?


*If you’re going to invest in spending some time with your customers, it pays to be sure your sample is representative of your customer base and represents the challenges . I believe this is worth taking seriously, and well worth paying a recruitment firm to handle for you.

**Sometimes I’ll add the age and/or gender of the participant. Gender is not always obvious from the name and in mixed households having a little more information helps you get your greeting right at the door.

Games people play during user research

How and why I use games as ‘tools for talking’ during fieldwork interviews…

User Research TechniquesA couple of universal truths stand in the way of discovering what people actually think and do:

What people do and what people say are rarely the same.

Equally, what people think, and what they say are very different.

Annoyingly, but reliably, these rear their heads during customer interviews and ethnographic studies – the two main methods I use to gain insights from people.

In practice they work like this:

Customers will alter their behaviour if they know they are being watched, This is known as the ‘Hawthorne effect‘.

And they’ll most certainly have a self-edit running while they are being interviewed, so they’ll tell you the things they think you’re wanting to hear.

Apart from a pretty strong ‘bullshit detector’ and the ability to read between the lines I use ‘games’ to get around these conflicts.

I make simple activities – prompts with words and pictures – for customers to arrange right in front of me.

These help customers express perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, emotions and preferences. Uncovering ‘the why?’ behind these, bringing a richer, more accurate picture to the surface.

Most commonly I use a variation of one of these:

Journey.

Plotting a sequence of events or process by placing items in the order they happened. I often have the participants add a series of ’emotion cards’ to highlight highs and lows etc.

After a mad-dash of shopalongs in a retail CX project, this participant maps the highs and lows of her experience.

After a mad-dash of shopalongs in a retail CX project, this participant maps the highs and lows of her experience.

For this home buying study I've used yellow and blue cards as positive and negative emotions. Top marks to this participant for serving cheese and crackers!

Here I’ve used yellow and blue cards as positive and negative emotions. Top marks to this participant for serving cheese and crackers!

Grouping.

This is a bit like a ‘card sort’, but less about categorising and more about arranging by value, importance, usefulness etc.

Design research card sort

Here I asked customers to sort services by value to them – ‘could have’, ‘should have’, ‘must have’ and ‘deal breaker’ – Explaining their choices as they went.

I gained great insight for a retail interior design project by asking customers to arrange images of retail environments.

Mapping.
Working out which goes with what. Great for understanding why people make certain choices.

Customers here were able to map services to their preferred channel. Note: I've included 'It depends' as an option. Because sometimes, it just does.

Customers here were able to map services to their preferred channel. Note: I’ve included ‘It depends’ as an option. Because sometimes, it just does.

As you can see, the materials are bespoke to the project, and I take great care to plan them, keeping them to a manageable number (you don’t want to spend more than 15 mins on an activity like this)

So, here are my top tips:

It’s not data.
These activities are all about the conversation, not collecting data.
There may be some patterns in the arrangements, but on face value they are nowhere near as useful as the thoughts they helped elicit from the customer.
I might photograph the final arrangement, but the real value lies in what the customer has shared in describing it, justifying their placements and what this means to them.

Kickstart a conversation.
Many times I’ve had a conversation go from prickly to fluid around these activities, so it can help break the ice. Perhaps some people are more comfortable with ‘something to do’, during the interview. The customer will visibly relax, letting me into their stream of thoughts, where I want to be.

How to facilitate?
Depending on the person and the topic, I sometimes leave them to complete the activity on their own, making a mental cache of their movements, then reflect on these afterwards, or I’ll have them talk me through every step, (known as ‘think aloud‘ in usability world).

Either way, when I can literally hear them thinking, it’s a good time to prompt them for their thoughts.

Be a ‘thought sniper’.
You’ll want to seem ‘distanced’ from the subject, (they might feel like you’re watching them with one eye as you pretend to check your twitter feed) but you’ve got your sights on their every move.

Watch for the pauses and hesitations, confidence in placement of cards.

Underlying these movements are the nuances which, when expressed verbally, can reveal the kind of insights you’re looking for.

Freestyle.
Always include a few ‘blank’ cards and have a pen handy. You’re unlikely to have covered every eventuality or option in your set of cards, so let customers make their own.

Try to have the activity on a sheet of paper, so customers can draw rings around groups, links between items etc.

What have I missed?

There’s no way in the world I’m the only person who uses these techniques, so if you’ve got something to add, please add it in the comments or send me an example and I’ll add it to the post. Thanks!

Context is everything, even in a motorcamp

Design research, especially ethnography, means being right there with your customer while they interact with your product.

In my current project this means collecting stories from tourists in their campervans around a few of the hotspots we are lucky to have ‘Down Under’.

“Tough gig”, I hear you say…

…but we’re doing what the real anthropologists call ‘getting off the verandah’.

Design research on the road

We’re studying the customer journey of these rolling tourists via observation, and interviews at various stages of what is a highly-anticipated holiday experience. For some tourists it’s a ‘bucket list’ item – so under the surface of a relaxing holiday, the stakes can be high and the details matter.

design-research-map

The value of immersion

The tourist experience is in striking contrast to the patients I shadowed in hospital wards this time last year, where their situation was undesirable, unplanned …and the sooner it ended the better.

One aspect, though, is the same – the value of being immersed in their environment.

This value reveals itself immediately, demonstrating the closer you can get to experiencing your customers’ reality the better you’ll understand what matters to them.

Breaking the ice

Parking-up and staying in motor-camps moves us across an invisible, but tangible line. Somehow the ‘ice’ is broken for us when approaching our likely subjects, we’re seen less as nosey researchers – more as fellow travellers. This sense of ‘permission’ makes the vital first few minutes of an interview so much easier – rapport and empathy are built much quicker than I’m used to.

design-research-tags

Research in context

By walking (well, driving) in their shoes, we’re also relying on the same tools they use, like maps, guidebooks, facilities etc. We’ve also fallen into the rhythm of the campsites, observing and being part of activities happening at different times of day / evening. All this context provides a vital frame of reference for everything we’re observing, and helps us relate to experiences described to us.

Sure, it would be more convenient to snaffle these customers at the tail end of their trip, herding them into an office to collect holiday anecdotes but the opportunity cost of missing out on those rich insights is too great.

…and it’s much easier to focus when you’ve had your eyes opened that little bit further.

Dream design research projects from 2013, Part 2

The second half of the year was no less exciting with client work, but was boosted by the buzz of my own product hitting it’s stride in the market.

From July to December: Home brewing, TV, Mr. Tappy and Motorhomes.

Here goes…

5. Craft brewing insights

Location: Portland, Oregon. Micro brewery capital of the world.

Client: imake / (Part of the Better by Design programme).

Portland is the world’s capital of micro breweries and craft brewers. Visiting with imake’s team from NZ, Australia and USA, we stepped inside the garages, basements and minds of craft brewers, aiming to understand what makes them tick, and how they approach brewing.

My role as part of Better By Design is to help build design capacity within NZ export companies like imake. In many cases this starts with understanding customer needs, so getting out in the field like this was a perfect first step towards customer empathy.

In Oregon, I briefed the team on how to get the most from contextual interviews, supported them in the field, then coached them through collaborative analysis.

A deep dive into brewing culture, but my satisfaction came in that it was the client team who drew out the insights and identified opportunities for marketing and product development.

6. How do you view?

Client: SKY TV.

Location: Around NZ.

A classic contextual study in homes around NZ to understand how TV fits into people’s lives and how? / when? / where? / why? they get their fix.

Having run studies like this for BBC and SKY in the U.K. back in the late noughties it was super interesting to see shifts in consumer expectation and behaviour. Back then it was ‘time-shifting’, now it’s ‘omni-screening’. From devices to content sources, this felt like a ‘snapshot in time’ in the dynamic landscape of TV.

Insights from this project fed into new product development and an upcoming redesign of SKYTV.co.nz.

7. Tapping into the mobile market

Client: My alter ego – Mr. Tappy.

Location: My kitchen table, and 30 countries.

Yes, from kitchen table to global tech giants in 2 years and just 700 easy steps.

My side-project, Mr. Tappy, (a product I’ve developed to help film people interacting with mobile devices) continued to surprise me with sales to the point where I can nearly hear myself blush when I see my list of customers.

Taking this product to market has been a humbling learning curve for me. Even when working alone I find myself being design, marketing, sales, distribution, customer service, etc., discovering how easy it is to work in silos and lose customer focus – Something nobody can afford to do, especially when your customers are expert product evaluators.

Having ‘skin in the game’ has resulted in greater respect for my design research clients‘. Running day to day operations, and shipping product is challenge enough let alone keeping an eye on customers. This first hand experience helps me understand my role as a design researcher with each client.

The entire product is made right here in NZ (some in my home workshop) and the next iteration will ship with a purpose designed HD camera.

8. Living the dream, via your own motorhome

Client: Tourism Holdings.

Location: Australia and NZ.

We’ve all been stuck behind one on a hill on the way to the beach, but what’s it like to buy a home, and a vehicle at the same time? We set out to find out.

I worked alongside Ed Burak, THL’s lead experience designer to provide research muscle on a project around motorhome sales. Motorhome buyers are a fairly relaxed bunch, usually at retirement age and with some time on their hands, but buying one of these rolling holiday homes is not always a holiday.


From a few dozen interviews with owners, buyers, salespeople and experts, we poured our insights into a customer journey map highlighting parts of the buyers’ journey where the experience could be improved.

… and as you’ll see, some of my illustrations  for the journey map were verging on the autobiographical. Yes, the waves were always like that in my memories.

…What’s next?

All the talk of holidays and time away was perfect timing for the end of 2013 and inspired me to use the caravan (which was once my office) a few times over the Christmas period. Good timing.

If you missed my previous post, here are the first four dream design research briefs from last year.

Dream design research projects from 2013, Part 1.

Be careful what you wish for.

When I moved from design into design research, I dreamed of projects like these.  2013 was the year they arrived.

Contexts ranged from hospitals to homebrew, motorhomes to mobile devices, television to truck driving.

I was repeatedly humbled and surprised by the people I worked with, both research subjects and my client collaborators.

As much as I’d love to write a blog post from each, 2014 is in full swing, so…

Here are the first four of eight standout projects:

_

1. Hospital in-patient experience

Client: CDHB.

Location: Christchurch, NZ.

The most sensitive environment and subject matter I’ve worked with so far.
I worked with hospital staff on wards and at patients’ bedsides to capture in-patients’ emotional responses to the experience of their stay.

After discharge we visited patients and their families at home for a reflection on the experience. A clear picture emerged, of what matters to a patient, from environment, to information to service, and their associated feelings. Together, the team formed key design principles to meet the emotional needs of patients.

In some interviews I used live-sketching to capture notes, It was fun so I wrote a short article about my technique, with ‘top tips’.
_

1.5 Hospital ward prototyping

Later, in a GIANT warehouse, I helped lead a series of ward design / prototyping exercises with a super diverse set of stakeholders – from cleaners to clinicians, anaesthetists to architects.

I worked with a team of anthropologists and architects from Seattle-based design agency, NBBJ to facilitate full-size prototyping and simulation exercises, using  cardboard for walls, medical staff and actors to test various scenarios of use.

Those cardboard walls in the photos are a system called Mockwall designed specifically for spatial prototpying.

Since then the CDHB team have taken the prototypes through to a convincing level of detail where they can be validated through ‘almost real’ use. You can watch a short video showing where they’ve come to.

_

2. No Trucking Worries

Client: Blackbay.

Location: Virginia, USA.

I was dropped into Richmond, Virginia and the world of the long haul trucker. As I found out, Richmond is smack in the middle of the Interstate 95, the busiest highway on the east coast, connecting 15 States.

My role was to capture the voice of the driver, the way they communicated on the road and the information they handled along the way.

Big rigs, 53 foot trailers, truck stops and the dedicated ‘tribe’ whose mantras were either ‘live to drive’, or ‘drive to survive’. After a few days of interviews I was talking their language of lumpers, spots, hooks, dead-heads and bob-tails.

I worked in classic diners and freight depots, alongside product managers to inform the design of plan an app to let drivers spend more time eating up highway and less time worrying.

Yes, the app is called No Trucking Worries

_

3. Rock’n’roll radio

Client: Tait Radio.

Location:Christchurch, NZ.

To help Tait adopt a user centred approach to product development I planned and facilitated a rapid ‘learning by doing’ user centred design workshop focussing on installation of their in-vehicle radio systems.

This was a hands-on capability-building activity focussed on a specific project with the idea they could roll out the same approach on other projects.

I coached the team around research and analysis techniques, then took them through to prototyping and testing their concepts with their live customers.

I loved seeing engineers dig deep to define customer needs, then work together with plasticine and pipe-cleaners, receiving valuable feedback before moving designs forward.

_

4. Border Entry

Location: London, UK.

Client: UK Government.

“What is the purpose of your visit to the UK today sir?”, became what is the experience of travellers entering UK borders?.

This was a dream opportunity to work in airports, a context I’ve always been intrigued by.

Unfortunately, with my curiosity at it’s peak a week into this project, the project timeline shifted and I couldn’t eat into my next project in NZ, so frustratingly found myself experiencing the NZ border entry earlier than expected. …Maybe another time.

Dream projects 5-8 next week…

The rest of the year saw me into the world of craft brewing, TV, motorhomes and wrangling supply chain, sales and distribution with my own side project, Mr. Tappy.  I’ll save all these for Part 2.

Redundant, by design

I’ve been willingly doing myself out of a job, and it feels great.

Since 2013 I’ve been on the design integration coaching team for Better By Design, and you’ll see on this page why I’m humbled by the company I keep.

So, who are Better by Design? in their own words, they:

Inspire and enable New Zealand businesses to success by design. Our mission is to assist companies increase their international competitiveness through the process of design integration.

Each ‘design integration coach’ has a specialism. Mine is customer insights and user centred design, a core part of my design research consulting practice.

So how does this mean I’m doing myself out of a job? the answer is right there in the word coaching.

The programme exists to build design capability within the staff companies already have, rather than make them reliant on external consultants.

Design often begins with design research, so this is where I step in as a coach – taking people away from their desks to learn new skills while gaining valuable insights for their business.

This is a new way of working for me, and has me thinking about what I do from a fresh perspective.

I’ve been consulting for 12 years – starting with being what I now see as a ‘hit and run’ gun for hire, then moving towards a more collaborative approach, involving clients where possible to help them benefit from the process.

…but coaching is about more than collaboration and as the crude graph above shows, it feels like a step up in value to client and satisfaction to me along the way.

I’ve been taking teams with no experience of design research out into the field to run ethnographic studies with their end users, dropping them in the deep end, and the driver’s seat as much as possible. If it’s scary for me, it must be even more so for them but the fully immersive approach is engaging and it works. Here’s a case study from this project, (about craft brewing)

Learning design research by osmosis

My first client in this programme is now able to plan and run their own projects. Next step is for those involved so far to coach their colleagues to their newly-found skill level. Despite the feeling of being less useful to the client over time, seeing them make increasing use of the skills like this is a real buzz.

All ‘teach a man to fish’ proverbs aside, I’ve found this to be a hugely rewarding way to work, with lasting value.

If you’re a freelancer or consultant and have a client who could benefit from bringing the skills you offer in-house, take them on the journey. It’s a win-win.

Outsourcing user research… to your customers.

It took some balls to design and launch a product for the hard-to-impress and razor-critical user experience market a year ago…

My first batch of 10 weren’t quite ‘minimum viable product’, but small production runs and a direct feedback loop from UX folk who buy and use the product has fuelled iterative evolution of a ‘live’ product. It’s a bit like every batch is a prototype.

Originating as a ‘number 8 wire’ solution, Mr. Tappy now helps UX designers in 23 countries to capture user behaviour as UX research participants interact with their designs on mobile devices.

Looking to improve things is an occupational hazard for people with a usability background, but this is a breed of customers who go out of their way to provide constructive feedback. I’m not sure the product would be where it is without the input from my customers.

It’s been possible to adopt changes, make tweaks to the product, packaging etc. from batch to batch. From an added tip in the user guide, to a different anodised coating to minimise reflection.

Shipping with the current version is an alternative to the velcro attachment. I simply build this into the production run and keep my ear to the ground for a verdict – hey presto! user research is baked in.

‘Perpetual beta’ is an aspiration in some digital projects, but doing this with a physical product has been a great antidote to working with some companies product development cycles. Oh the the luxury of tweaking as you go, as opposed to the big ramp up to launch. At least my clients employ design research to get as close to the target (and target customer) as possible before hitting the ramp!

I’ll keep ‘launching’ my prototype and, thanks to my customers… with every batch – another slightly evolved design.

How lucky I am to have customers who are as articulate as they are demanding.

Design thinking – One size doesn’t fit all

“It’s not about going from left to right and some magic happens on the other side, it’s about understanding the intention”.

…Said Director of Design Innovation at Intuit, a stop on the Bettter by Design Study Tour I was part of in 2012.

During our visit, Intuit shared how design thinking changed the culture, and profit of the company (eventually).

Their story: How they tried and failed to install ‘design as a process’ into their teams, arriving at a more engaging and successful model of ‘principles’.

A couple of key points I took away:

Design thinking – to the rescue?
With a history of incremental usability improvements but no real innovation, Intuit took a big swig from the design thinking cup. Their aim was to integrate design thinking into the business, to be more user-focused – exceeding customer expectations, rather than just meeting them.

Things didn’t go as planned…

“We made a mistake in that we started with design thinking as a process, when we brought a process back to Intuit, they puked all over it. Because in a culture where; product development has an agile process, marketing have a go-to-market process and legal have a compliance process, they couldn’t reconcile the design thinking process on top of theirs, so they did nothing”.

So, the conventional design thinking process wasn’t flexible enough for the realities of their culture and practice, and it simply wasn’t engaging teams.

Principles, not process.
To replace the rigid ‘process’ approach, Intuit arrived at three principles to underline all development work- teams could use whatever methods they liked, so long as they adhered to those principles.

So, how did that go?

“A seminal moment in our journey was when we took the process of design thinking and made it into principles. It’s not about going from left to right and some magic happens on the other side, it’s about understanding the intention behind these principles, then you can make it your own”.

“We have watched teams come up with their own methods and tools at any time in the process and it totally works. Thats when we saw uptake in the culture, when we started to see behaviours change, when we gave them permission to make it their own”.

Here are their principles:

  1. Deep Customer Empathy (Know your customers better than they know themselves)
  2. Go Broad to go Narrow (Quantity of solutions, then focus)
  3. Rapid Experimentation with Customers (Prototype, test, iterate)

Sounds like a win to me, especially if this has taken hold in an organisation of thousands.

So, how do Intuit involve customers in their design process?
To deliver on their first principle, (apart from their dedicated UX team) Intuit has committed to getting their teams out of the office and into the context of their customers using their products. Unsurprisingly, this has proven to build empathy for the customer, and as a positive bi-product, engagement with the ongoing design process.

Two big wins.

“We went from listening and fixing problems, to watching to find what they really need but can’t tell us.

This changed the way the organisation makes decisions by watching people’s behaviours versus listening to what they say”.

If you’re wanting to institutionalise design thinking, there’s a video on the Adaptive Path website which tells this story from another Intuit insider’s viewpoint http://youtu.be/HrxD_BaZlcU