Users Can't Always Tell You What Their Real Goals Are, But The Right Kind Of Research Can

Lately it’s become en vogue to talk about how to “surprise and delight” your customers. And why not? If companies are competing on experience, they need to find ways to impress and engage their customers. Figuring out how to do this is difficult but doable.

I recently had the pleasure of editing a report that Vidya Drego wrote that outlined three categories of customer research techniques: exploratory, evolutionary, and evaluative (read or download the report here). That process led me to think about my own research on Emotional Experience Design, which asserts that in order to engage their customers, companies have to craft interactions that address real goals, craft a cohesive personality, and deliver the right sensory experience. It’s this first principle of addressing real goals that I’ve looked into more deeply in a new report called, “Mastering Emotional Experience Design: Address Customers’ Real Goals.” Here are a few examples of companies that address real goals by extending value beyond the functional needs of a single interaction:

Of course, this is all good stuff, but how do you get the insights you need to understand these deeper needs and context? Countless times I’ve spoken with companies that think they can use surveys or focus groups to get users to tell them how to frame interactions. These are valid research techniques, but for different purposes. Identifying needs and desires — and the things that will delight people — is hard because people aren’t often aware of what influences their behavior. That’s why we have the field of psychology and books like Predictably Irrational.

So what should companies do to make sure they’re laying the foundation for emotional engagement with their customers? They need to foster a culture of empathy, invest in exploratory research, and validate designs with techniques that understand the rational and emotional parts of the experience. And they should remember that they don't have to build the next iPad to successfully engage their customers.

To get more details, read my latest report.


Agree, and I'd like to also add...

In my experience, there is a time and place for surveys and focus groups, but those methods tend to be best suited for evaluation of things that currently exist in some fashion. Surprises and delights lie beyond those borders of existing reality, so to gain deeper insight into that space, you've got to shelve the evaluative model and adopt a generative model. Be willing to accept that you don't know 'what you don't know' about your customer experience, and look to rebuild it from the outside in, thus reframing the way you view the entire problem by generating a new framework leveraging the customer's point of view.

Qualitative endeavors such as contextual interviews and observation tend to function more effectively in this realm as a means to define what truly 'surprises' and 'delights'. Also, creative thinkers tend to be more effective than traditional market researchers in these situations, because they can help break down the walls of existing paradigms and expectations, whereas the latter have a tendency to accept reality as the status quo.

The existing formats of surveys and focus groups that attempt to harvest much of this insight also rarely give customers an opportunity to convey the rich details of their stories, and it's in those details where the opportunities to surprise and delight exist.

You also make a great point that customers don't typically volunteer this degree of insight. It's not because customers refuse to offer it outright, it's that for the most part they just aren't thinking in that sort of capacity. I mean when you're pushing that cart with a squeaky wheel in the grocery store, are you really thinking about how that little detail could be changed to redefine your entire shopping experience?

Intriguing stuff!


Pete, Thanks for your reply.


Thanks for your reply. You make some great points about techniques that are better for evaluation than for exploration. I also like what you said about creative thinkers vs. market researchers. It's critical to think about this part as a more creative endeavor because you're trying to pull out an idea or motivation that people themselves can't describe. It takes special skills to be able to infer those things. One might even call it empathy.

I recently read a quote by Steve Jobs about the iPad where he said that Apple didn't do any "research" before they built the iPad because it's not the consumer's job to know what they want -- or something close to that. While I couldn't see Apple doing a research project to figure out if consumers were satsified with their options of smartphone vs. notebook, you have to imagine that a deep understanding of user behaviors and context went into the creative thinking that gave us the iPad. Of course, one can't expect every company to produce iPad-like ideas but if we look at companies like Nike with the Nike Plus experience, you can see a pattern of thinking that addresses what consumers really want vs. what they may be able to tell you they want.

Finally, I love what you said about the shopping cart wheel. Most people think of a squeaky wheel as somethihng that needs a little grease and that's it. But if you reframe the whole question of what it means to shop, you can come up with some groundbreaking ideas. From there, it's about executing the ideas.

Thanks again for your thoughtful post.