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Using Qualitative Research to Inform a Customer-Centric Design

This chapter from Refining Design for Business: Using analytics, marketing, and technology to inform customer-centric design discusses several types of qualitative research and shows how they can be used to generate test ideas while providing insights that will help guide the business in an evolving marketplace.
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Many businesspeople, even those responsible for the online experience, don’t spend nearly enough time trying to see their business through the eyes of the customer. Qualitative research offers an invaluable way not only to get into the customer mind-set, but also to come up with ideas for innovation. This chapter discusses several types of qualitative research and shows how they can be used to generate test ideas while providing insights that will help guide the business in an evolving marketplace.

Benefits of Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is the art of capturing the customer’s perspective on the online experience offered by a business and its competitors. Companies often neglect to do qualitative research and instead take the easy route by relying solely on analytics software to understand their customers’ online behavior. However, quantitative research can only reveal how site users are acting; it can shed very little light on what they are thinking or feeling. In short, it is no substitute for truly seeing a company through the eyes of its users. This is not always a comfortable experience for business leaders, but it is key to helping them understand the customer perspective, adapt their business to evolving conditions, and generate ideas for new designs—tasks that metrics alone cannot fulfill.

In particular, qualitative research is critical to identifying:

  • Unmet customer needs. If a business is failing to provide customers with what they’re looking for, no analytics report can shed light on that gap. By watching and listening to customers, or by re-creating their online experience firsthand, researchers can discover users’ expectations, unmet needs, and any sources of frustration.
  • The why behind the analytics data. Sometimes metrics can generate more questions than answers. For example, an analytics report showing an increase in page views per visitor isn’t always a good sign. Although it may indicate customers’ satisfaction through deep engagement with the site, it may also indicate confusion about how to add products to their cart, or reveal unsuccessful attempts to locate information such as shipping rates or to find pages on the site that customers think should exist but do not.

Most qualitative research methods work with small, even statistically insignificant, sample sizes. As a result, this kind of research is best used for understanding broad questions—such as whether customers understand the basic business offering and whether it’s something they need—as opposed to informing decisions about how to design every detail of a business. For the same reason, researchers often verify hypotheses based on qualitative data by referencing web analytics or testing to see if the hypotheses apply to a large number of customers.

Learning More About Customer Goals

The first step in qualitative research is to define realistic customer goals that explain why customers are choosing to interact with a business. This is not as easy as it sounds: Customers may access a site for very different reasons, and their goals can and do change over time. As Rob Blakeley, Senior Product Manager for WebMD, put it, “Our customers’ goals are as different as there are blades of grass in New York City’s Central Park.”

However, most businesses can easily identify a preliminary list of the most likely customer goals and adapt this list as researchers gather further information. For example, a financial services company’s customer goals may include opening or closing a deposit account, sending and depositing checks from a mobile device, getting a replacement credit card while traveling abroad, and so on.

If a businessperson is struggling with this task, it may help to ask the question: If customers could come to the business looking for help with only one thing, what would it be? It’s much better to create a top-notch experience that can satisfy one important goal shared by many customers than to create several mediocre experiences in an attempt to address many different objectives.

Starting to Answer Qualitative Questions

The next step in qualitative research is to build a list of questions to explore. Like the customer goals, this list is preliminary and will change over time. The following is a list of potential questions that companies may use as a starting point in this process; of course, each business will tailor the list to its own priorities.

Fundamental questions:

  • Why do customers come to the business?
  • Why do they leave?
  • Do customers understand what the business has to offer?
  • Do customers want what the business has to offer?
  • Is there anything customers want from the business that it is not providing?
  • When analytics data shows areas of concern—for example, high drop-off rates, repeat page views, and so on—what are the reasons for the customers’ actions?
  • Which product or service is most important to customers?
  • If the business could focus on only one product or service, what should it be?

On finding products, services, and content:

  • Is the full breadth and depth of the product/services/content offering apparent?
  • Are there too many or too few products/services/content to choose from?
  • Do customers easily find products/services/content using site navigation and/or search?

On the customer’s decision-making process:

  • Are products/services/content easy to differentiate from one another, or are they too similar, leading to customer confusion over which to choose?
  • Are the cross-sells, up-sells, and promotions clear? Do they interfere with the primary purchase?
  • Is there enough information to make a purchase decision?
  • Is it clear how to find related or popular content? Does it interfere with the primary content experience?

On conversion:

  • Are there barriers to easily checking out?
  • Are prices, taxes, shipping, returns, and security protections apparent? Are any of them barriers to checking out?
  • Are there barriers to easily viewing additional content?

On the competition:

  • Which competitors do customers go to, and how do the preceding questions apply to these competitors?
  • Do competitors offer a product or service that would complement the business’s offerings, such as accessories for a product the business sells? If so, should the business offer it as well?

Note that some of the preceding questions are based on quantitative research; however, it is not essential to have performed quantitative studies before tackling qualitative research. Most businesses already have a basic understanding of their data, and the iterative method means new insights, from both kinds of studies, will be added to the mix throughout the process, allowing team members to refine and add to their list of questions.

The next step in qualitative research is to try to answer these questions through firsthand experience, observing customers, and other methods, as described in the following sections.

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