Tag Archives: qualitative research

Remember who the expert is

When European sailors discovered Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known to its inhabitants, the first thing they noticed was the enormous moai statues.

Understandably, they were amazed that a small population of people with access to only simple tools had been able to carve and move these vast stone figures, weighing up to 82 tonnes.

They asked the islanders how the statues had been put in place.

“They walked.”

Since this was obviously nonsense, Europeans over the years developed theories to explain the apparently impossible. Rollers seemed the most likely explanation, and this tied in nicely with the evidence that Rapa Nui had once been covered in palm trees.

An idea soon emerged of a people who, prioritising their statues above all else, cut down all the trees on the island for rollers to move their statues. Ultimately this led to the collapse of civilisation on the island, as there was simply not enough food to maintain the population.

This was the received wisdom for over a hundred years, and it forms a neat parable of the risks of not looking after our environment, but it’s probably not what happened on Rapa Nui.

As Paul Cooper explains in an episode of the superb Fall of Civilizations podcast, the inhabitants of Easter Island were wiped out by contact with Europeans. New diseases and slave-raiding were the main drivers of depopulation on an island that seems to have been remarkably peaceful and well organised for hundreds of years, until the Europeans arrived.

What has all this got to do with research?

I’ve written a few things recently about the importance of interpretation in qualitative research. That’s certainly true, but there is a catch. It’s all too easy to hear what we expect to hear. The listener’s assumptions can make them deaf to what the speaker is actually saying, particularly when there’s a perceived imbalance of power (like the assumption that the inhabitants of Easter Island were “primitive”).

If you want to understand customers, start by assuming that what they say is true. Forget your preconceptions, and treat your customer as an expert—after all, who knows more about how they feel, and why, than they do? Start by believing what they tell you, and if it seems strange do the work to figure out why there’s a perception gap.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the moai moved into position? They walked.

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Language is more than words

I’m fascinated by language.

It’s one of the relatively small number of things which sets human beings apart from any other animal, and it’s the foundation on which pretty much all our knowledge, cooperation, and even civilisations are built.

It’s also the stock-in-trade of a researcher—language remains the main tool we have to understand other people and how they see the world.

But there’s a danger that when we think about “language” we reduce it to simply the words we use. We send and understand meaning far more richly than that, and in many ways our ability to communicate goes beyond what we’re consciously aware of.

There’s a fascinating article in New Scientist about the way in which we use filler words such as “um”, “uh”, and “huh?”. As the article says

“Far from being an inarticulate waste of breath, filler words like um, uh, mmm and huh are essential for efficient communication, sending important signals about the words we are about to say so that two speakers can better understand each other.”

The research shows that filler words are not mistakes, and they’re not empty or interchangeable, but form a kind of metalanguage. “Um”, for example, signals a longer pause than “uh”.

These words help the listener to understand what to expect, and they also prepare us to be ready for a change, or something unexpected, and therefore help us to notice and remember significant things.

That’s why it worries me so much when qualitative research is reduced to customer quotes. Shorn of body language, tone, context, and metalanguage detail which we may process without conscious awareness, it hardly seems right to call these shallow collections of text “verbatims”.

For qualitative researchers, our interpretation of what customers mean is at the heart of the work we do. It’s by taking advantage of our ability to interpret these clues correctly that real customer insight is possible, not by piling up quotes.

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You Cut, I Choose

If you grew up with siblings, I’m sure you’ll have come across the principle of “you cut, I choose” as a simple way to prevent all the arguments about who got the largest slice of cake.

It’s about achieving fairness (not necessarily equality) in a way that neither party can feel resentful about, because the cutter can make sure they would be happy with either slice, and the chooser can pick the slice they think looks best.

Looking on Wikipedia1, I’m intrigued to see that it’s even referenced in Genesis, which shows you just how long-lasting a simple solution to a common problem of human nature can be.

What can it teach us about customer experience?

The Veil of Ignorance

“You cut, I choose” links to a concept invented by the American philosopher John Rawls in 1971, something he termed the “veil of ignorance“. I came across the idea in Mike Monteiro’s excellent book Ruined by Design, and he puts it like this:

“…when designing something, imagine that your relationship to that system gets determined after you’ve made it.”

It’s a brilliantly simple idea that encourages designers to think hard about the consequences and ethics of their design choices.

It works because it encourages you to think about the perspective of other people involved in whatever it is you’re designing (whether it’s a political system, a tax structure, or a business).

Seeing the Other Perspective

Seeing the other perspective is precisely what’s required to design good customer experiences. We sometimes talk about the “lens of the customer”, as opposed to the “lens of the organisation”, and this is exactly what we mean.

The veil of ignorance is a useful thought exercise to make sure that you consider the impact of your decisions on customers. But can we do better?

It’s a lot easier to understand the perspective of, for instance, people with disabilities, women or black people if your design team includes them, which is one reason why diversity is really important when planning customer experiences.

More important than thinking, though, is the principle that you can only really understand the customer’s perspective by talking to them. Use the tools of research, particularly qualitative insight, to understand them and their lives in as much detail as you can.

Involve them in your design process, so that you can make sure that the experiences you design are truly meeting their needs. They won’t be able to give you all the answers, but they can tell you what won’t work for them.

You Cut, I Choose in the Customer Experience

What does “you cut, I choose” have to teach us about the customer experience? I think it’s the principle that fairness comes from understanding what it would be like for the experience to happen to us.

You can do four things to help you get there:

  • Use the “veil of ignorance” to imagine the impact of your decisions
  • Strive for diversity, to understand the impacts better
  • Talk to customers, so that you understand their needs and lives
  • Involve customers (as early as possible) when you design experiences

1. Fair warning: I also fell down an enormous Wikipedia rabbit hole reading up on various complicated mathematical ways to fairly divide a cake.

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Interpreting the visual

noun_visual thinker_844165At our client conference this year I spoke about semiotics. It can be a difficult subject to get to grips with, but I think it’s worth the effort.

Semiotics has a lot to teach us about bringing what Dr Rachel Lawes calls an “outside-in” perspective to qualitative research.

One real strength is that the method can be applied just as well to visual cues as to words. To quote Nicholas Mirzoeff in Introduction to Visual Culture

“…seeing is not believing but interpreting.”

That doesn’t mean that images can simply be “read”. Their impact is too immediate, too powerful, and too visceral to be decoded in verbal terms.

I find it helpful to think about every piece of communication and every customer experience in terms of the balance between its verbal and non-verbal elements. What is being said? What meaning do we derive from the non-verbal cues that accompany what is being said?

If we forget about the non-verbal side of this equation we risk seeming at worst inauthentic (e.g. “your call is very important to us”), at best dry and lacking in emotional impact.

Reason and emotion are not as cleanly separated as we often believe. As Dave Trott points out in this great story, we can address emotion with rational arguments…

“…a rational demonstration can have a more powerful emotional effect than something vacuous designed purely to appeal to the feelings.”

In just the same way, small details in process design can have a big emotional impact on customers (think of Amazon’s delivery notifications).

What semiotics gives you is the ability to step back and analyse how meaning is created by customers’ interpretation of the verbal and non-verbal cues you’re giving them.

Without it you’re working with one eye closed.



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Measuring emotion


Is it possible to measure emotion?

I don’t think so, at least not with a survey. Emotions are largely unconscious and experienced in the moment; asking customers to accurately remember and score them after the event misrepresents the nature of emotions.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea of trying to understand emotions. Here are some tactics we can try…

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is all about trying to build up a picture of how customers think and feel, and the context that shapes that. Emotions, as we saw in a previous post, are a vital part of the picture.

The mistake people often make is thinking that qualitative research is about what customers say. It’s not, it’s about why they said it. Good qualitative research digs beneath the surface to understand the deep psychological needs and reasons for customers’ behaviour, thoughts, and feelings. That’s where the emotions sit.

How do we do that? It starts by asking probing questions, but ultimately it means we need to add a layer of interpretation; so qualitative research is never entirely objective. To counteract the subjectivity of interpretation, we can turn to established models.

Models to interpret

In her excellent book “MindFrames“, Wendy Gordon outlines 6 distinct lenses we can use when trying to make sense of what customers say, based on decades of practice. This is a good example of a tendency that all qualitative researchers have to build up mental models to help them translate from what customers say and do in order to understand why.

Good researchers keep up to date with what the cognitive sciences have to tell us about how the human mind works, looking for ways to translate that into the messy real world of customer experience.

Measurement (not questions)

What about measurement? Why can’t we take something like Plutchik’s list of basic emotions and ask customers to score them on a scale? There’s nothing stopping you from trying, but I don’t believe it often works. Introspection is a terrible tool for understanding our unconscious mind, and you’ll find that a few easy to articulate emotions such as “anger” dominate.

So what can we do?

  • Focus on causes and outcomes. Qualitative work can highlight which events and behaviours cause emotions, and which outcomes derive from them. Those are often easier to measure quantitatively.
  • Interpret. Know that what customers say is not always the true cause. If they give a low score for waiting times, understand that anxiety may well be the real problem.
  • Use non-survey methods. Sometimes it’s possible to measure emotion in the moment, without asking customers directly. IDEO’s laugh detector is a good example of this.
  • Quantify verbatims. Customers usually reveal more about their emotions in their verbatim comments. It’s relatively easy to find (or build) dictionaries that will score comments for emotion. This works to a point, but be aware that you are only working at the surface level of what customers say, not at the deeper level of why.

The future for emotions

The latest scientific evidence suggests that emotions may be less innate, less universal, and less monolithic than they feel to us. Lisa Feldman Barrett in “How Emotions are Made” says:

“…your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.”

That points us even more firmly away from trying to measure them in any straightforward way.






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User stories & customer journey mapping

noun_1213168A big mistake that many organisations make when they try to map the customer journey is that they stick too close to their own perspective.

The result may be a customer view of their process map, but it’s not a true customer journey map.

Why not? The tell-tale problems are:

  • Too much detail
  • Ignoring context in customer’s life
  • Focused on products, processes & touchpoints
  • Starting too late in the journey
  • Finishing too early in the journey

How can we overcome this tendency to let the inside-out view dominate? The best way is to use qualitative research and allow customers to lead the creation of the journey map.

User stories are a really useful tool to make sure you approach the journey with the right mindset. They’re normally written in the form

As a__________ I want to__________in order to__________.

Doing this will allow you to stretch your view of the journey, so that you start when the customer became aware of their need, not when they first got in touch with you. This more accurately reflects the customer experience, and opens up opportunities for innovation.

It also puts the customer’s goal (not your product) front and centre. This helps you to make sure that the experience you design is addressing the right problem, and opens you up to the possibility of solving it in new ways.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

—Theodore Levitt

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Classifying journey maps – a thought-starter

This is a slide from my briefing on Customer Journey mapping.
It’s my attempt to bring a bit of order to the chaos of journey mapping. The beginnings of a taxonomy, if you’re feeling generous.

It’s not comprehensive, but I hope it highlights some of the things to be aware of when mapping a journey:

  • Is it focused on an individual’s experience, or on more general stages?
  • Does it include:
    • Experiences
    • Emotions
    • Attitudes
  • Is it looking from the organisation’s perspective, or from the customer’s?
  • Is it based on qualitative insight, quantitative data, or a mixture?
  • Does it show us what makes the difference, and how much?
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Qualitative research: conversation not judgement

Focus groups get a bad press.

They’re overused by politicians, ignored by the business leaders we admire (Steve Jobs), often made up of “tame” participants.

Critics usually trot out the Henry Ford quote:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Which is actually a really good example of what focus groups do badly (innovation) and what they do well (identifying fundamental needs).

It’s true that customers won’t invent your new product, or even your next ad, for you.

They’re not even very good at picking between options, because customers get too focused on details at an early stage of development.

Which is why I wasn’t impressed by the car manufacturer who proudly announced that its new model had been “rejected by focus groups”.

When used properly, focus groups can provide the spark of insight that allows a brand to connect with customer emotions and radically differentiate itself.

At a recent MRS event, Peter from Voodoo gave a good example of this. Lurpak used focus groups to identify a globally shared emotional moment of truth in cooking – the “moment of alchemy” at which a dish comes together.

Based on that they developed an immersive ad called “weave your magic“.
No doubt this ad would have been rejected by focus groups. Probably in favour of one showing a green field full of cows with a dull voice over about quality and provenance.

We all like to think we’re rational.

By engaging customers in a conversation early, using research to inform creative rather than to judge it, Lurpak were able to create something truly memorable.

Qualitative research is about opening doors, not closing them.

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