Customer Insight

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Lighting the Way with Qualitative Insight

By Stephen Hampshire, Client Manager, TLF Research

At TLF, we’ve started talking about how organisations should structure a customer experience improvement programme in terms of four stages. The first, and perhaps the least well understood, is what we call “understand & explore”, which is where we use qualitative research to explore and better understand the customer experience.

It’s the first stage because it's the first thing you ought to turn to, but it's something which organisations are often guilty of scrimping on or skipping altogether. Why? Because they don't understand the value of it. Qualitative research can seem expensive to people who don't understand it, especially if they evaluate it in terms of cost per response. That’s simply not the right way to think about it. To be frank, much qualitative research does end up being bad value because organisations don't understand how to use it effectively. You need to think, not in terms of cost per response, but in terms of new insights uncovered.

Not just soundbites

David Ogilvy, who was nothing if not quotable, said of research: "We all have a tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost - for support, not for illumination."

And this is exactly what most qualitative research looks like. Companies gather a group of customers, set them talking, and collect up a handful of pithy verbatims from the most articulate to illustrate a slide or two of a presentation. Having spent a lot of money organising a focus group, that certainly does look like an expensive way of securing a couple of soundbites. But good qualitative research is much more than that, as I hope to show you.

Why you need qualitative research

So if qualitative work should be more than just decorative quotes, what is it for? Surely I'm not suggesting that you should make big business decisions on the feelings of a few people? No, I'm not. That's not what it’s for either.

It's not designed to give you the data to make sound decisions with. What it does give you is a window into customers' minds. It won't give you answers, but it will make sure you ask the right questions. And when it's time to improve, it will give you the depth of understanding to design experiences around customer needs.

The “lens of the customer”

Researchers are not normal. You and your colleagues are not normal. And the problem is that the ways in which we're different from normal make it impossible for us to look at the customer experience the way customers do. We've all forgotten what life was like before we were intimately familiar with our internal departments, processes, and jargon. Think about how much you've learned since you joined your organisation, then triple that and you've got some idea of how little the average customer knows (or cares) about how you do your business.

On the other hand, we tend to forget that customers have lives outside of their role as customers.

Their experiences with us are embedded in the context of those lives, and we can't hope to design them effectively unless we understand that.

We've got to shift our perspective to match that of customers, and then find a way to take that understanding back into the business with us. That shift of perspective, for me, is what qualitative insight is all about. Without it, all your research will show telltale signs of asking the wrong questions about the wrong things.

Defining qualitative

If you look for definitions of qualitative research, you'll usually find people talking about small samples, open questions, and being face to face. Like many definitions based on description, these are both true and wildly misleading.

The point is not how big your sample is, but what you're trying to do with it (which is to find as many opinions as possible, not represent what's typical in the population). The focus on questions is a trap, as we'll see later, that leads us down the path to expensive soundbites. Listening and, especially, interpreting are much more important than the questions you ask. It usually is face to face, but the point is to talk to customers in the way that will be most comfortable for them - if that's an online community, then go for it. Finally, the main defining feature is that qualitative research is opening, not closing, it's about broadening our knowledge, not making a decision.

What you need to know versus what customers can tell you

One of the things which makes research tricky is the gap between what you want to know, and what customers are able to tell you. There's a spectrum - some things they're really good at, and some things they're almost comically bad at.




When it comes to their attitudes, thoughts, and feelings, customers are pretty good. Asking them is the best (and only) tool to try to understand what they're thinking.

They're ok when it comes to their behaviour, as long as it’s fresh in their minds, particularly if you take the time to get them to relive the experience. In customer journey mapping, for example, it's often effective to anchor their memory with some relatively concrete questions up front (Did you order through the website? Which products did you buy? etc.) and then prompt "And what happened next?" again and again as they describe the journey.

What we'd love them to be able to do, but they're totally incapable of, barring the odd miracle, is providing you with solutions. This is the source of the old cliché that focus groups can't innovate. Of course they can't. If you expect 8 random customers to do a better job in an hour than your R&D team, then you need a new R&D team! Customers won't give you solutions, but they can help you find them...but we'll come back to that later.

Customers are worst of all at predicting their own future behaviour. This manifests in two important ways. There's the "New Year's resolution effect", where we all genuinely believe that we'll be going to the gym more and eating fewer doughnuts over the next few months, but looking back we find that our fitness diaries are a bit sparser than we'd hoped. Customers answer questions with the future behaviour they'd like to show, not what's actually going to happen. Secondly. customers don't want to hurt your feelings. If you ask them whether they'd buy something, they'll probably say yes.

Predicting behaviour

One of my favourite examples from the behavioural economics literature is of the organisation which got customers to evaluate a product prototype in a focus group, asking them "would you pay £50 for this". They all said they would. At the end of the group customers were given the choice of a crisp £50 note or one of the prototypes. Which do you think they chose?

Correct—they all took the money. So which better reflects their future behaviour? This is a good example of a general principle: if you want to predict behaviour, find a way to run an experiment; if you want to know about feelings then questions are your best bet.

Qualitative research (particularly focus groups) sometimes has a bad reputation because it’s so often used in exactly this way. As Wendy Gordon observes in her excellent book Mindframes, too often research is used to find positive soundbites to rubber-stamp a decision that has already been made. Then, when the product launch is a flop, the failure is pinned on the research.

The problem goes back to our spectrum - you want to know what solution will work for customers, and how they will behave in the future, but customers can't reliably tell you that.

The ladder

I can imagine some of you thinking "this is all very well, but I thought you were supposed to be explaining why qualitative research is important, not telling us why it's crap". I'm getting to it, I promise.

The problem we've just outlined, that gap between what you want to know and what customers are capable of telling you, has a solution, and that's what elevates true qualitative insight above simply piling up soundbites. I like to think of it as a ladder.




The ladder starts with customers' words, but it doesn't end there. It's about listening effectively, and using a combination of probing and interpretation to understand what those words reveal about what customers mean, how they feel, and therefore what their needs are. It's about building an empathy with customers that allows us to draw accurate inferences about, or in other words make good guesses about, what motivates and drives them.

An example might help to make this a bit more concrete. Customers are talking about something taking too long. It might be their delivery, or waiting time, or how long it takes you to get back to them about their complaint. A naive view of insight says that customers would be happier if we do whatever it is we're doing quicker...which is not all that insightful, is it?

How does the ladder help? The first thing we need to realise is that what customers really mean when they say it took too long is that it felt too long. "Perception is reality", as listeners to our Podcast will be sick of hearing me say. The time it actually took is part of that, but it's only part of it, and often it turns out that the quality of the wait is more important than the quantity.

So what else might influence the quality of the wait? If we listen harder we might find out that what customers are talking about is how anxious they felt while they waited (Is it going to get here on time? Will it be right when it arrives?), or how bored they were. As soon as you identify emotions like that in a customer experience you know you've hit potential gold. Now it's time to add a layer of interpretation to what you've learned, understanding that those negative emotions reveal deep emotional needs that customers have to feel in control of their lives, and to be entertained.

What's exciting about that is that it turns a common customer complaint (it took too long) with a mundane and difficult solution (do it quicker), into a deep insight about customer needs and motivations which opens up potential for designing better experiences. If we can make customers feel in control of the experience, maybe it won't matter if they're waiting for a while. If we can keep them entertained in the queue (like Disney), maybe they won't notice how long it is.

What you can find out




If we turn back to the spectrum of what qualitative work can do, we can see that customers find it easy to talk about their attitudes. By using the ladder we can climb down to a deeper level of meaning, needs, and motivations. And when we understand those, we gain insights that allow us to anticipate customer behaviour and design solutions that will work more effectively for them. So the ladder helps us solve that dilemma—it gets us from what customers can tell you to what you need to know in order to improve. So how do we do it?

Better questions

Let's have a look at how the ladder works in a bit more detail. It starts with asking better questions. Questions that will push us further down the ladder, rather than back up it. But before we get to the questions themselves, let's reflect on what it is we're asking customers to do. Do we want them to talk about their general feelings (e.g. tell us about your visits to the gym) or on the detail of a particular experience (e.g. tell us about your last visit to the gym). Both can be valid, but for customer experience work the latter is usually much more insightful, because it anchors the discussion in a specific remembered experience.

Before customers let you take them down the ladder, they need to feel comfortable and relaxed, and that means you need to build a rapport with them. But a qualitative researcher's job is not to make friends. We need to keep an objective distance, whilst building rapport, so that we don't inadvertently lead respondents.

Even worse, when researchers realise that their job is to dig deeper, to climb down the ladder with customers, their first thought is often to do it by asking explicit questions. Questions like "did you find it hard to find the right person to contact?" Qualitative research is always a balance between objectivity and subjectivity, but questions like this invalidate the apparent insights they turn up. Your questions must remain neutral...but that doesn't mean that your mind has to remain a blank slate. The process of qualitative enquiry is one of following hunches and developing theories, without letting those leak through to respondents.

I see the focus on questioning, as I'll explain in more detail later, as a bit of a trap. Just as important are what we call "probes", which are mostly designed to keep customers talking about the things we're interested in. Often it's a case of the simpler, the better, and keeping silent can be the best probe of all. To point in the right direction, we show customers that we're interested in their take on their experience, and what it meant to them. We want context, and we want their interpretation of it.

Better ears

Frankly, though, the focus that many textbooks have on the questions we ask is, in my view, totally misplaced. Listening is much more important. As the sociologist Les Back reminds us, listening is a skill, and it's one that the modern world is not necessarily very good at teaching us. Listening well is how we start to take those crucial steps down the ladder.

“Listening to the world is not an automatic facility but a skill that needs to be trained.” - Les Back, The Art of Listening




We should not discount what people say, the surface content, but we should never be satisfied to let it rest at that, because that's rarely where the insight sits. We need to think about who's talking, and in what capacity. What identity have they adopted? This, by the way, can be useful to tie in with the design tool known as user stories—"As a BLANK, I want to do X in order to achieve Y."

We also need to think about what's conveyed by how they say it (their tone, how passionate they are, any emotional signifiers that come through in body language, and so on).

And examine why they're saying what they're saying. Is it a totally straightforward attempt to explain how they feel, or are they trying, for instance, to show off to the other people in the group? If so, what does that reveal about what motivates them? Understanding that the customer is distorting reality in order to achieve something doesn't necessarily derail your research; it might be the crucial insight that emerges from it.

We want to understand as much as possible about the context of where and when in which our product or service sits for customers (researchers sometimes talk about "thick description", which I think is a really good phrase for this).

And we're always trying to get down the ladder to the deeper lever of meaning, needs, and motivations.

Not what they say

As should be obvious by now, qualitative research isn't really about what customers say. It's about using what they say to understand something more fundamental about what matters to them.

When we talk about qualitative research, when we report it, and when we think about it, we tend to focus on the questions we ask and the responses we write down. We concentrate on the words. I think that can be a massive trap. We can enhance research by including observation, photography, video…but ultimately a lot of the raw material we're dealing with does come down to words.

How do we work our way down the ladder from words to meaning?




Wendy Gordon outlines 6 ways, which she calls "Mindframes" in her excellent book of the same name.

As Gordon says, “Each frame allows me to explore and understand a different representation of reality.”

Thinking in this way allows a researcher to understand the world by looking at it from slightly different directions. They're like 6 pairs of glasses tinted in different colours, each of which allows us to interpret what someone says in a new light. Trying and combining different mindframes is often where the most important insights come from.




More generally, we can think of our toolkit of interpretation as consisting of fundamentally two approaches, which you can call "inside-out" and "outside-in". Inside-out approaches come from the perspective of psychology, and include things like behavioural economics and nudge theory. They help us to understand what drives customer decision making, and how to design experiences which will work for the way human brains are programmed. Outside-in approaches are more informed by anthropology, and interpret what customers say and their drivers in cultural terms. Both are equally important, although they tend to teach you different things.

Which is best value?




Here's a classic example from behavioural economics. Magazine subscribers were offered the choice between paying $56 for an online subscription and $125 for a combined print and online one. Most chose the cheaper option. Then the magazine trialled a different ad, with a third choice of the print subscription on its own at $125. Now most customers went for the combined subscription because it looks like the best value. That's the kind of insight that can only come from psychology and experiment.

But what if we wanted to understand what the colour red means to customers? There are some insights that we can draw from the inside-out perspective, about the visual prominence of red, how it grabs attention and seems to be closer to us than other colours. But potentially just as important are the cultural associations and meanings that are baked into it. It's linked to ideas of danger, health...and what does red mean to someone Chinese? Or someone from Manchester? No amount of cognitive science will help us understand that. Tools like semiotics are much better placed to help us interpret these kinds of cultural codes in a useful way.


Why do you need qualitative research? Because if you do it well, it's not just a bunch of soundbites to support a decision you've already made, it's a tool that enables you to surface deep insights about customers. That gives you three vital things…

Deep understanding of customers

You can use it to explore areas you know nothing about, or to climb down the ladder to understand the psychological motivations and emotional needs which drive the ways in which customers react to the products and experiences you create.

Better surveys

That results in better quantitative surveys, which means that even if you prefer the apparent robustness of numbers and percentages, you still need qualitative research to help you design effective surveys. Quant without qual often ends up giving you an exact answer to the wrong question.

Design thinking

Qualitative insight also provides the fuel to feed a design thinking approach to designing great experiences for the customer, starting from that deep understanding of their emotional needs so that you can design experiences which deliver for customers in ways that they are incapable of articulating themselves.

Why do you need qualitative insight? Because it's your only chance to understand how anyone except you sees the world, to understand customers and explore the world from their perspective, and to discover opportunities to address their emotional needs. That seems like pretty good value to me.

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