How to find out what your customers need

by Matt Currie / 23 October 2014 / No Comments

“We have to find out what our customers want!”, “We could do a survey…”, “Let’s just talk to our call centre staff; they’ll know.”

Surveys and talking to frontline staff all have their value, but for us, the go-to technique for helping our clients find out what their customers really need is ethnography-based research.

What is ethnography-based research? Essentially, it’s qualitative research that focuses on understanding how people live their lives, from their perspective. “Oh, you mean walking a mile in your customer’s shoes?”: yes that’s one aspect, it’s also looking inside their closet where they keep those shoes, talking to them about what footwear means to them, and observing them while they shop for new shoes.

Why do we take this approach? Because we’ve found it’s the best way to uncover what truly matters to people and what their world is like: essential knowledge you’re going to need for creating products, services and businesses that meet real needs and work well for people in the context of their daily lives (aka being successful in business).

Our go-to techniques for ethnography-based research are in-context depth interviews and observation. This means we go to places where people live, work and play, and watch them do things and talk to them about it. For example, we shadowed people when they visited an oral surgery clinic and then conducted short interviews with them in the carpark about their visit.

The watching reveals what people do, and the talking reveals what they think, feel and say. The observational element is particularly important because people are generally pretty unreliable at accurately reporting what they really do.

When we are in interview mode, we’ll have topics of interest and questions we’d like answers to, but our modus operandi is to simply explore someone’s world and mindset. The interviews are more in the nature of a fireside chat than a Q and A session. We focus on letting the participant talk, tell us stories and take the interview to places they feel are important.

Once all of the fieldwork is complete, we process the data for analysis and synthesis. This usually includes having audio recordings transcribed and marked-up, printing photographs and collecting up gathered artefacts. Our normal process is to set up a “war room” and plaster it with this data. We then comb for patterns, groupings and themes, usually in collaboration with our client.

The outputs of this kind of research vary from project to project, but they always include some kind of set of customer insights, customer needs or customer-centred innovation opportunities. Often we’ll also include frameworks like customer journey maps, personas, and ecosystem/interaction maps where they are useful for designing new products and services.

Though the outputs may vary, ethnography-based research always ratchets up our clients’ understanding of who their customers are as nuanced human beings, and identifies opportunities to better meet their needs.

How do you find out who your customers really are and what they really need?

About the author:

Matt is the Director and Principal at Divergent. Matt is a divergent thinker who loves ideating but knows when to converge too; he has experience with a range of tools and techniques to guide the innovation process to successful business outcomes.

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