Marketing | Read Time - 7 Min Updated 30.05.2021

Ultimate Guide on Customer Research

Customer research aims to uncover the barriers or frustrations users face as they interact with products.

As a discipline, customer research methodology focuses on understanding user behavior and needs through various techniques such as direct observation, surveys, and task analysis. Customer research is beneficial in all stages of the product design process–from early ideation to the market release launch. Read more about different methods of customer research and how to use them properly.

What Is the Overall Goal of Customer Research?

Customer research puts a project into context. By humanizing the data collected about users, marketers, designers and researchers can identify the problems users face during an interaction and turn them into actionable insights. By putting the user front and center and evaluating every design decision from their perspective, designers are able to create a more user-focused experience that can lead to a higher likelihood of the user returning to a site, service, or product.

What Are the Different Customer Research Testing Methods?

Generally, it’s possible to distinguish between two large groups of methods as qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative methods include:

  • User interviews – Asking users about their experience with a product;
  • Usability testing – Moderated or unmoderated testing of a product by people who represent the target audience;
  • Contextual inquiry – Observing how users interact with a product in their environment);
  • Guerrilla testing – Gathering user feedback by taking a prototype into a public place like a café and asking people for their thoughts;
  • Focus groups – Inviting a small group of people who represent the target audience to discuss their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product.

Quantitative methods include:

  • Surveys – Questionnaires often gather a large volume of responses which can open up the opportunity for more detailed user analysis.
  • Eye-tracking – A technology that measures eye movements and makes it possible to know where a person is looking, what they are looking at, and for how long their gaze is in a particular spot on a page.
  • Product analytics – Usage data from real users of the product can yield some of the best insights into product development.

The exact methods of customer research you perform will largely depend on the type of product you’re creating and the available resources at your disposal. So before starting any customer research, it’s vital to identify key goals you want to achieve and what metrics you’ll track along the way.

Also, it’s important to understand that quantitative and qualitative customer research methods are not opponents; they are different components to be considered when making data-informed decisions. In many cases, it’s recommended to pair qualitative methods with quantitative to get the best results. For example, qualitative research methods will help a team validate their design direction while quantitative methods will help adjust the individual design according to the user’s needs and business goals.

No matter what methods you choose to use, remember to always approach research with an empathetic perspective.

What Are Some Misconceptions About Customer Research?

Customer research is becoming increasingly popular, yet many still question its value. It can be a challenge to get organizations on board with the process. Some common misconceptions of customer research are that it’s too expensive to garner a positive return on investment. But the myth of customer research being too expensive is just that–a myth. There are many ways to adjust the scope of research to fit into various budgets. Similarly, many believe customer research to be too time consuming, but utilizing quick rounds of user interviews and low-fidelity wireframes can make the process faster.

The idea that customer research can be done with a simple survey is another misconception. In reality, surveys do not always yield quality and useful data. Qualitative methods and usability testing (even if you’re just interviewing a small group of people) can reveal important patterns.

Top Customer Research Myths

While user experience (UX) research is gaining in popularity, there are still many UX design teams who struggle to include research with users in their process. Certain perceptions about the value and validity of doing customer research can make it hard to convince organizations to buy into the importance of including it. Let’s review some key misconceptions and the reality behind them.

Myth 1: It’s too expensive and time consuming

Time and budget are often the go-to excuses for not doing any research with users throughout a project. There is a myth that customer research is very expensive. The truth is, as with many things, there are ways to adjust the scope of research to fit a wide range of budgets and timelines. Quick rounds of user interviews or contextual research can be timeboxed within the process. Usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen has long been an advocate of “discount usability,” ways of flexibly reducing the cost of conducting usability tests. Low-fidelity prototypes like paper prototypes or clickable wireframes can be used effectively to do quick rounds of testing without needing to spend time polishing the artifacts.

There are also quick and dirty approaches to recruiting, incentives, and tools used that can make customer research very affordable and speedy. For example, friends and family recruiting through social networks can keep costs low, and using gift cards to coffee shops or company swag can reduce participant incentive costs. There are also many online platforms that enable more specific recruiting, while eliminating professional recruiting company fees. Finally, many online usability testing platforms make remote testing an affordable option.

Reality: There are ways to fit customer research into a range of budgets or resource conditions, and not doing research may cost you in the long term.

Myth 2: We can just do a survey

Surveys are frequently seen as a low investment, low risk approach to research, but the reality is that getting good data from a survey requires high skill

As design research expert Erika Hall writes so eloquently, “Surveys are the most dangerous research tool  —  misunderstood and misused.” They can seem deceptively easy to administer at scale, and this accessibility can be good. However, getting quality data back from a survey requires a lot of skill in how the survey is designed and constructed.

Surveys rely heavily on people self reporting, and also often constrain answers to limited choices. Surveys don’t allow researchers to observe behavior, and so are best used to explore things like large-scale customer demographics. The method often doesn’t allow researchers to dig deep into why something might be happening — so, if used, it can be most effective when paired with a qualitative method of research, like interviewing, that allows for a deeper dive.

Reality: Surveys often don’t have a good ROI in terms of the quality and usefulness of the data.

Myth 3: We can’t get anything worthwhile from talking to such a small number of people

For organizations that skew heavily toward valuing statistically significant market segmentation or surveying, or perhaps analytics data, the validity and worth of qualitative research with smaller sample sizes is sometimes questioned. There can be an attitude that a quantitative research approach is better than a qualitative one (or, indeed, sometimes the opposite).

In reality, the most effective customer research approaches allow for triangulation across multiple methods. The different data types can tell us different things, and complement each other nicely. Qualitative methods can help us understand the “why” behind human behavior, and dive deep into underlying customer needs and desires, even at smaller sample sizes. The researcher’s job is to identify insights and patterns. Nielsen Norman suggests that, for usability testing, testing with five users will find up to 85 percent of the issues.

Reality: Qualitative methods and usability testing can reveal important patterns at small sample sizes.

Myth 4: Customers don’t know what they want anyway

The (potentially misattributed) Henry Ford quote, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” gets pulled out a lot as justification for not talking to users. The idea that customers don’t know what they want may have some truth to it. However, doing customer research is not only about understanding what customers want, it’s about diving deep into their needs, behaviors, and experiences.

Customers are experts in their own lived experiences and mental models, and will demonstrate surprising ways of using your products and services. Being able to understand the customer perspective will enable teams to build experiences that are more aligned to where the customer is at, and truly provide value and delight. The researchers job is to sift through qualitative data to uncover people’s underlying needs in what they share. In the faster horses case, for example, people’s underlying need is to get from A to B quickly and reliably.

Reality: Users are experts in their own lived experiences and mental models, and the researcher’s job is to uncover their needs and behaviors to inform the design process.

Myth 5: Doing testing with users at the end of the build will be sufficient

One of the more common forms of customer research is to conduct evaluative testing, which entails testing with users once a product or service has been built. This is sometimes seen as the last “check in the box” in a design-and-build process. While this is certainly valuable, and better than doing no research at all, there is sometimes a missed opportunity to incorporate customer research earlier in the process.

Generative research is about exploring a problem space and generating possible problem framing or solutions. Doing upfront generative research can increase the chances that a team is approaching a customer need from the right perspective before proceeding to ideation and developing solutions.

Reality: Incorporating different types of research throughout the process will lead to the best results for customers and the business.

Paper prototyping can be one low-fi and cheap way of getting design work in front of users earlier in the process

(About) PRIME™ Creative

PRIME™ Creative is a brand strategy and digital design agency that brings brands and culture together. With a belief that culture drives commerce, PRIME leverages shared values and ideals to inform strategy and design, creating experiences that inspire life and inspire action. With a growing client list, PRIME specializes in insights, strategy-driven and design-led company development, and digital innovation / user experience.