Observational customer research

The purpose of observational research is to understand what people are doing. The purpose of qualitative research is to understand what people are thinking or feeling. Only when you combine observational and qualitative research with quantitative data do you get a truly comprehensive understanding of your customers.

Service industries have long made customer observation a cornerstone of their management philosophy. Sam Walton, who founded Walmart, mandated that his managers spent four days every week on the floor of their supermarkets. He gave an example of how he was able to spot emerging trends. He observed that many women shopping at his store had ladders in their tights. It was the end of a recessionary period and people had more money in their pockets. He made a big order for women’s tights, set up some front-of-aisle displays with good prices. The tights flew out the door.

I once talked to a McDonald’s manager who told me a story about one day that she was spending more time than usual in her office because her secretary was out sick. The phone rang. She picked it up. It was her boss. The first question she was asked was: “What are you doing in the office?”

You cannot deliver excellent service if you are not constantly observing the use of your service. If you’ve got a website or app, you’re in the business of delivering services. It is scary how little most digital professionals observe the use of what they create. Customer observation is the foundational skill in service design and management. It is simply impossible to deliver quality services without constant observation of customers.

The most basic form of observation is a usability test. You give a customer a task and you observe them as they try and complete that task. There are always patterns. If you observe eight people and three of them are stumbling at Page X, you can be sure that there’s a real and recurrent issue there.

What you can then do is to go back to your quantitative data and see what it is telling you about Page X. For example, if you see there’s a high bounce rate on that page, then that might indicate that many customers are giving up at that point. If you examine the top searches that occur on Page X, that can indicate what people were expecting to find when they arrived on Page X.

The potential weakness of observation is with the observer and in the test design. Even with highly experienced professionals it is often hard to agree what the most important patterns are. Observation can also suffer from confirmation bias. It is not uncommon for organizations to run usability tests just before launch of a product or service to confirm that they have done the right thing and tick the box that they have tested with customer. The purpose of observing customers is not to confirm a design, but rather to help develop a design.

The patterns identified during observation should be treated as hypotheses that can be confirmed or otherwise by quantitative data. More importantly, observation should be a constant, ongoing process. The foundation of all great service delivery is the continuous observation of customers. Changes to the service get made based on these observations and then further observation confirms whether or not the changes have been useful.

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