Within the world of qualitative research, there are several interesting sub-categories that focus particularly on developing an empathetic understanding of customers.
1. Observational Research
We observe customers in their natural environment, at home or at work rather than in a formal research setting. It’s time-consuming to collect this data, which makes it important to pick the right subjects. We also set aside time for analysis. Professional ethnographic research firms do highly structured, multi-week and sometimes global engagements — I call our basic observations Napkin Ethnography.
2. Experiential Research
Why not become a customer yourself? When we first signed on Geek Squad as a client, two members of the strategy team scheduled in-house service calls to see what it was like to be a Geek Squad customer. We also booked a rival company to compare the experience.
3. Participatory Research
For the bravest of clients, we involve users themselves in designing the ideal experience themselves. This can range from card sorting exercises to choose understandable taxonomy to suggestions about site functionality. Beware feature creep! Customers don’t expect to have to make tradeoffs (remember Homer Simpson’s dream car?).
Once you have all this research, what should you do with it? At Organic, we distill our research into personas, archetypal representations of actual users and their needs. Personas include basic demographic information, psychographic profiles, and insights about observed behavior. Great personas should invoke empathy. If your persona doesn’t generate affection, empathy or opinion from your team, in all likelihood it’s too generic.
We tend to customize our research approach based on how much a client feels they already know about their customers. But we will not skimp on persona development. The persona itself can take many forms, from a single sheet of paper to a video biography to a set of physical artifacts. I’ll talk in more depth about the way personas are expressed in another column.
Overall, I find that our focus on empathetic research is moving us away from the techniques of traditional marketing (typically focus groups and other consumer panels) and closer to the realm of user-centered design, particularly disciplines like product design and environmental design. As advertisers, I would love to see us work more closely more freely from design community. Ultimately we share a common focus—the design of meaningful customer experiences.