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Design Thinking, Growth Hacking, Marketing
Talking is one of our most primal and basic functions, yet when presented with an interview or data on a computer screen, more and more people are choosing the impersonal interaction.
 
User research has always held a high place within design but it now has come to the forefront with more people competing for customer attention. While a number of user insight approaches exist such as A/B testing, heat mapping, and expression tracking, these all tend to get overly complicated and are better suited for later in the design process. They also rely exclusively on technology to solve a non-technical problem that is understanding what your users feel.
 
With so many alternative research methodologies, why bother actually talking to your customers at all? 
 
Because people inherently don’t trust a screen but will open up to an empathetic stranger in a matter of minutes. The need for interviews stems from the complex nature of people being people and the fact that we can’t always be defined by numbers or predicted by patterns. 
 
Forget Your Assumptions; YOU ARE WRONG
Research methodologies were born out of the sciences, they were designed to provide validation on hypothesis, concepts, ideas, and statistics. Due to this, most questions result in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers which provide a direct response to the hypothesis but do not explore the emotions or journey that got the user there. Unfortunately, the answer to ‘why something works?’ is then based on a pre-determined combination of prior knowledge, demographics, and psychographics. Interviews, on the other hand, have the flexibility to be structured in a way that makes no assumptions and goes to the heart of what the customer is actually feeling.
 
During customer research for our stock 3D model company, we assumed that artists were purchasing stock 3D models to simply fill out their scenes. That stock models were not core elements of their designs. Through a combination of in-depth conversations and literally sitting at their desk asking questions while they worked, we learned that our customers weren’t using stock to simply fill out backgrounds, but as critical components of their designs. The majority of customers were actually using stock models as ‘mostly’ complete skeleton of their project, then modifying it to meet their requirements. We had been aware of this use, however, the research data we had showed that this wasn’t really a big use scenario. It wasn’t until speaking with 3D artists that we learned that the existing academic data we had was entirely superficial and didn’t really understand the job that 3D artists do every day. 
 
During these conversations, it was revealed that since we weren’t the only platform for our customers to purchase 3D models, they would open multiple browser tabs to look at us and our competition. They would then search all platforms and buy the 3D model that was the closest to their needs. Our assumption was that they searched one site at a time and hunted around, spending quality time in our store. In hindsight – should have been obvious – we were blinded by our assumptions and missed something that helped us rethink how we shared our product offering – from site design to marketing positioning.
 
Fill in the Knowledge Gaps
One of the great advantages of in-person interviews is that they enable you to discover things about your product that you didn’t know existed, or was needed. This can come from suggestions by the user, from you discovering new lines of inquiry during the interview and sometimes even when the user misunderstands a question. Discovering something that you aren’t looking for it is part of the conversation that always brings a new perspective and avenue for exploration every time.
 
Users = People
Interviews can be really hard on your ego, especially if you have staked your hypothesis on your assumptions. This is because your assumptions are about to be tested. You are now able to check if the personas you have created are actually representative of your audience or if you are introduced to a new group of users who you hadn’t considered before. You are able to connect with these people and understand the challenges they face not just with your product but also in their life. This is where empathy comes in, to make the emotional connection between your offering and the user’s problem. Ultimately, it enables you to better integrate your product into their lives.
 
So if interviews can reveal far more intent and understanding than other research methodologies, why aren’t more people conducting user interviews and why do most interviews end up being a waste of time?
 
Assumptions Instead of Goals
One of the biggest mistakes made while planning a user interview is not defining the purpose of the talk. Without clarity on why you’re talking with users, the whole exercise turns out to be futile as there is no set direction and it ends up becoming a generic mess of nothingness. You’re not a reporter doing a human interest story, you have a specific reason for requesting someone’s time.
 
Solution
There is no need to get into the weeds here, you just need to define the problem that you are trying to solve. If you can’t put it in a single sentence then you should probably keep refining it, because everything you do after will have to be validated by whether it helps you reach the stated goal.
 
Less Specific, More Open Ended
When you have your goals clearly defined and expectations established, it’s now time to develop the framework of the interview. There is no need to develop a detailed set of questions as these will add too much structure to the conversation which can choke off spontaneity and new discovery. While this sounds unstructured (it somewhat is), the worst thing you can do is to wing it; it doesn’t work. You eventually end up losing track of what you needed and everything looks like a great insight, it is only later that you realize that nothing of value was gained from the interviews.
 
Solution
The interview framework should be divided into sections based on the main questions that need answering and it should include follow-up questions to enable you to dig deeper into the ‘why’ of your user to understand what they’re feeling. Using a defined framework and accepting an unstructured approach that will be contained within the established framework will open more doors to insights you and your team might never have thought of.
 
Striking Balance
While it is important to get to the bottom of why something works/doesn’t work, you really don’t want to annoy your user by asking a follow-up question to every answer. You’ll need to strike the right balance between getting to the core of something and getting thrown out.
 
Solution
During your interview, it is inevitable that you will have the realization that you missed something of real importance. This makes adaptability a very important tool; you need to be willing to throw out the framework and explore this new revelation. As we discussed with Journey Mapping, you can treat the first few interviews as trials and revise the framework based on the feedback. This will not only help make the framework more complete but also help structure it based on the flow of the conversation.
 
While we all agree on the value of these user interviews, how do we get users onboard to spend their valuable time talking to us about our products?
 
Proving Value
Sadly, design isn’t a major concern for society, most people don’t really think about it until something doesn’t work and then all hell breaks loose. There isn’t enough time in an interview to educate the user on the design thinking process and quite frankly, they probably don’t care. However, what needs to be done is to convince the user that having these conversations results in a better product for them. The user only needs to understand that since they are the ones using the product, they are the best people to suggest how to improve it.
 
Establish Rapport
A conversation would be useless if the user doesn’t open up and answer the questions candidly; a disengaged user will give answers that they feel are the most unlikely to generate follow-up questions. To start, you’ll need to ‘warm up’ the interview by starting with general lines of inquiry about topics the customer is comfortable talking about before you jump in and make it about your product. This will ensure that when the ‘why’ questions approach, the customer already has the momentum going for them.
 
Keep Focused
It is easy to lose focus during these interviews because external distractions can come up and the fact that the customer might go off on a tangent can easily pull both of your focuses away. While this can be great to develop a better overall understanding of the customer, spending too much time on non-core issues is counterproductive, it could even dilute the research.
 
As mentioned with Journey Mapping, have two people conduct the interview along with audio and video recording. This way one person can lead the conversation giving the customer their full and undivided attention while the other can take detailed notes. In case of a single person, it’s best to allow the recording equipment to keep track of the conversation while you lead it, building the rapport and learning about your user’s problems.
 
Final Thoughts
While interviews are a great way to gain insights, without proper care and attention they end up being a gimmick and a waste of everybody’s time. Interviews are a design exercise in their own right and they should be treated as such. So instead of just conducting interviews next time, design them.
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Design Thinking, Growth Hacking, Marketing
Imagine being the proverbial fly on the wall watching your customer’s journey from recognition of your brand, through research to contact and ultimately purchase? What would that journey look like? What types of ‘a-ha’ moments would you hope to uncover?
 
Journey Mapping is taking the hypothetical customer journey and plotting it out in a flow-chart, Gantt chart or another visual format. This map envisions the actual journey, documenting touch-points and areas of friction. It can also envision the ideal journey, identifying an existing area of concern to provide an overall smooth experience. 
 
Regardless of the approach, plotting a customer’s journey with your product or service forces you to focus on your customers, and not on your company. When you map their journey, you’re walking the mile in their shoes, feeling the highs and lows associated with your brand and getting a better understanding of your customer’s experience.
 
Creating the Journey Map is a critical component of Design Thinking. Taking the trip and documenting the existing customer experience to feel what they feel will help you generate informed ideas when it comes time to brainstorm solutions or new opportunities for them. 
 
The number one reason great ideas fail is that we misjudge what the customer wants. One of the best ways to remove this uncertainty and reduce the risk is to develop a map that gets you as close as possible to your customer’s lives, to their problems and their frustrations, as you seek to understand how your brand can create value for them. 
 

How To Do It – A Designers Guide For First Timers

 
1. Select Customers That You Want To Understand
Spend time investigating the context in which they’ll be interacting with your brand, and how you contribute to their overall picture at that moment. Looking to secondary data is a good start, before actually engaging with real customers. Blogs and websites can be a great source of information to learn about the world surrounding your customer and give you a better understanding about the context that your brand lives in, and will ultimately interact within.
 
2. Sketch The Hypothetical Journey
This is the first map you’ll draw, albeit a hypothetical one. This is your opportunity to outline how you think your customer’s journey goes. Be sure to cover all the steps in the journey beginning to end, and not just the ones that your brand is involved in (ie: If you’re selling an app on the App Store, the journey probably started with a need, then a search, then a visit to the App Store, all before your brand was introduced).
 
3. Interview time
Select a small group of customers or prospective customers (usually 12 to 20, but less isn’t necessarily bad) representing a range of demographic attributes that you’ve already identified in your marketing strategies and business planning. This will give you a range of experiences to draw upon which can help challenge your hypothesized pencil sketch Journey Map. 
 
It’s time to conduct interviews. However, these interviews are far different than the traditional focus groups, as they are conducted one-on-one and reject the herd mentality when answering questions. With these interviews, you’re going to go (physically) where the customers are interacting with your brand, and joining them on their journey not only observing them but talking about their journey as they experience it.
 
Initially, interview two to five customers. These first conversations allow you time to practice your interview techniques, but also to refine your questions and approach. What might have felt like the perfect question internally, might turn out to lead the conversation nowhere. When you are fine-tuning the questions, you can easily find the focus points on the emotional moments of the customer experience, which will provide the strongest data for your team to analyze. 
 
Using your hypothetical Journey Map, ask your customer to take you through their journey while comparing it to your notes. Be sure to dig into the details so you are getting an accurate picture of their steps and getting the kind of data you need. Sometimes you’ll even need to keep digging in order to get your customer to truly reflect deeply on their thoughts and feelings. Remember not to accept superficial answers, they won’t do advance anything.
 
Lastly, it is important to conduct the interviews as a team; one person taking notes while the other conducts the interview, thereby giving the customer their full, undivided attention. 
 
4. Moments Of Truth
The interviews are complete, you’re sitting on a pile of data, now it’s time to uncover the truth. This is an intensive, deep dive, of sense-making. By summarizing what was learned in each interview on a single template, then identify the key emotional moments of each interview, you can start to plot out what your customers are feeling. Taking these key emotional moments, writing them out in large print, then sticking them on the wall, you and your team can start to see the bigger picture and identify themes across all customers. 
 
5. Study The Themes
Now that you’ve identified the core themes, its time to uncover and identify a number of new dimensions that are usually physiographic, rather than demographic, that will help you reveal the difference in your data. To help make sense of all this, try using the list of Universal Human Needs, compiled by the Centre for Nonviolent Communication, for generating the key points and needs from your customers. 
 
6. Map The Journey
Armed with your data, the emotional needs and wants of your customers and the understanding of what they go through, it is time to build the Journey Map of your customer (or for each persona if you are expanding your research across multiple customer types). The map should reveal its own set of high and low points. These pain-points represent the most valuable innovation opportunities for your customer – this is where you make their life better! 
 
Journey Mapping is a whole different monster from traditional market research tools like focus groups and surveys. Marketing leaders trained in those methods are often suspicious with the findings from Journey Mapping interviews because of the small number of subjects and versus the large nets that they are used to casting. However, the small sample is a deliberate choice (and not only because it is more economical for startup businesses), because the data gathering is much more deep, personal and emotionally focused. The process uses observation and intensive interviews in real-time while the customer is in the middle of the experience and the interviewer walks with them through each part of the journey asking questions as they go along. 
 
Final Thoughts
Like all tools, there is a time and place for Journey Mapping and it must be remembered that it does not produce statistically significant results that a corporate auditor can review; it doesn’t “prove” anything. Instead, it sparks creative thinking about the unmet needs of customers which are often inaccessible using traditional market research methods and larger sample sizes. The aim of Journey Mapping is not to produce a set of statistical data, but to produce a new set of hypotheses for testing. As such, Journey Mapping is another iterative tool in the Design Thinking toolkit that pushes companies to engage their customers to really understand their experiences, and design better solutions for them.
 
 
 
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