7 examples of how companies can gain from customer insights

Empathy interviews and market research are all well and good. But it's really when you walk a mile in your customer's shoes that you strike gold. Here are some examples of how companies can and have gained from investing in more than just face time with their customer.

Businesses are faced with enormous pressure to deliver projects quickly. This is why our innovation consultants meet with resistance when they want to invest more time in learning about customer problems during a Design Thinking program. The argument is that there’s already enough market research to base the project on. However, unlike user research, market research only confirms status quo business thinking: jumping straight from problems to solutions.

To be able to serve customers better, and to design better products, companies have to understand the root causes and context of a customer’s struggles. Then, they must go beyond them to discover their needs and desires. If they don’t, companies risk coming up with a solution that only scratches the surface, (aka. a flop). This is why companies need to do fieldwork. This is often overlooked in the interest of saving time, but the examples below prove why all parts of the customer journey matters, not just interviews. Through the examples below, we will show you why the ethnographic research techniques of observation and immersion are so important.

When interviews aren't enough.

It’s important to be able to interact with the user in their own environment because people are often on autopilot and aren’t aware of their behavior. By observing the user in a specific context, it’s a way to uncover what they wouldn’t be able to share about through an interview only. Next to that, observation is a good technique to discover a user’s daily workarounds. Workarounds are methods customers use to overcome the obstacles they encounter while using your product or service. Workarounds are something that a customer begins to overlook once they become used to a particular way of working. Their workaround will give you an insight into their needs and how they’re currently solving the need for themselves.

Example 1 – Finding a communications solution for busy receptionists

One of our innovation consultants once did an interview with a switchboard operator about her day-to-day work. She reported that everything was going fine and couldn’t think of any room for improvement. However, when meeting with her in person, the consultant noticed that there were 3 mobile phones lying on the table next to the fixed telephone line she was supposed to be using. When asked about them, she said she needed the 3 phones to get in touch with multiple middlemen because it was faster than using the transit codes through the fixed line. She had created her own workaround to do her job more efficiently. Had our colleague not been there, this insight would not have been discovered.


Example 2 – Investigating the banking habits of customers on a budget

When one of our client’s customers was interviewed about his daily banking habits, nothing stuck out regarding his spending behaviour. But while observing him paying at the cashier, it became clear that he carried 7 different debit cards. When asked about it, he said that each bank card was dedicated to a certain spending area (leisure, investment, gifts) so he could easily allocate a certain % of his income to these areas per month, and more easily track his expenses. This customer problem might have gone under the radar in an interview.

Example 3 –  Discovering ways to improve medication for the elderly

One of our clients was trying to find a way to improve a medication whose users are typically older. Over the phone, one customer reported having no trouble at all with her medication. However, when the client team made a house call to learn more about the customer’s journey, they discovered that the client’s sight was failing, and someone had copied out the instructions in large print to make it easier for her to read.

Ways your customers will surprise you.

If you develop the powers of observation, you’ll see plenty of examples of people using products and services in ways that compensate for design flaws. At the Chinese embassy in Brussels, there’s a printer available to visitors to scan official documents. However, the printer setup is overly complicated and most of the people who use it only need to scan, copy or print. An office employee covered up all the other printer options and put a 1, 2, 3 next to the relevant options to prevent ongoing questions about how to use it. This pain point would be a perfect re-design opportunity for printing manufacturers. In an interview setting, this employee might not mention because she had already developed a solution to her problem.

When the only way to know it, is to live it.

Immersion is very valuable, especially if the challenge you’re trying to redesign is difficult to get feedback on through deep interviews or observation. Start with a question about something you don’t know the answer to (and won’t be able to find unless you put yourself in the situation). Then go through the journey as if you were that customer.

Example 1 – How do children experience airports?

Imagine you’re improving the airport experience for children. You won’t get a lot of valuable input by having a sit-down with them. Likewise, interviewing their parents will only give you a parent’s perspective. But you can observe what it’s like to go through the airport as a small person. What changes in your surroundings when you are a meter shorter? What suddenly becomes an impediment?

Example 2 – What does it feel like to have rheumatoid arthritis?

To better understand the daily pains of a person suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, one team of designers decided to bind participants’ hands together so they could experience how this hinders them from doing their daily work. The goal of the workshop was to discover key insights into how to improve the daily life of this target group.

Example 3 – How does homelessness affect job searching?

To learn more about homelessness, a team of designers decided to beg on the street and experience what it is like to be homeless. One of the designers reported that having been looked down upon and ignored by people, in one hour, they found their self worth melting like snow. They said it made it easier to empathize how difficult it must be to look for employment in those conditions. This empathy insight made the designer to understand the importance of self-esteem in job searching. A large part of the barrier to employment was not believing in yourself anymore, or that others would give you a chance.

We hope you can now see why it is important not to rely solely on empathy interviews, especially when they don’t take the daily context of customers into account. The power of the various customer research techniques lies in finding complementary channels to discover insights you wouldn’t have otherwise found through the other means.

Please contact us to learn more about how our Design Thinking programs can help you go beyond simple market research. We want you to discover the most valuable information about your customers so you can design the best solution to their problems. Here’s a case example of how it worked for TD bank.



I’m Yin Lei Zhang, Innovation Consultant @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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