Tom Bennett

Customer research: from empathy to insight

The best designs start with research to build a solid understanding of the customer. And the best research draws on empathy and vulnerability to gain a true understanding of the customer’s mindset.

As an experience strategist at Connective DX, Tom Bennett drives customer experience for clients, including business focus and strategy, experience visioning, and digital road mapping. He will be sharing his customer research secrets at Delight 2016 in his talk, Research for Delight: Empathy and Vulnerability.

Enhancing customer experience

Amber: How can empathy be leveraged to improve research and ultimately create better customer experiences?

Tom: Empathy allows us to understand a person from where they stand and see through the lens of their experience, which is at the core of what we do as experience designers. The empathy we bring to the table leads to greater insight, deeper understanding, and eventually a stronger product for customers.

I believe that empathy is in all of us as humans. It’s the ultimate act of perceiving. Some people are better tuned to it than others, but anyone can learn how to find the skills within themselves.

Amber: How does empathy drive delight?

Tom: Brands that have created delight are using empathy to get there. Empathy is a major feeder of insight. It brings us one step closer to the human level, which is a clear differentiator for the brands that get it right.

The human element in a world of big data

Amber: What’s your take on qualitative vs. quantitative research?

Tom: Google has given us so much data that’s immediately available at everyone’s fingertips. This gives us a false expectation that we have all of the information we will ever need about customers, which has resulted in an over-reliance on data to make decisions.

Data allows people to feel safe and check the CYA box, but focusing on data only reveals part of the picture. It removes the human factor. It tells you what is happening but leaves you to infer the why, which is a bit like archery with your eyes closed. You can still shoot an arrow, but your aim is going to be affected. So you are expending the energy, but threatening the outcome.

We need better tools to capture nuance and gain true understanding, which is where qualitative research comes in. Qualitative and quantitative research need to coexist and inform one another to ensure the strongest outcomes.

Empathy put into practice

Amber: How do you apply empathy when speaking to customers?

Tom: I have the benefit and honor of talking to people directly, whether it’s over the phone or in person. I always start by finding ways to share a presence with someone. Visual tools are incredibly helpful to share with the people I am talking to, so that they can see what I am recording, actively participate, and share in what’s being created.

I think the first component of empathy is truly listening and making sure that the person knows you are right there with them. I also actively imagine what the person is saying and share it back to them to make sure I am understanding correctly. There’s also an element of perception involved to read between the lines and draw out what’s not being said. There is also a lot of power in asking for what you want. Try phrases like “Help me understand.” And “What does that feel like?”

After the interview, I code my notes with meta tags that I can go through later. This helps me compare topics across conversations to begin to identify patterns. Through this sense-making process, we can spot bigger themes and insights that go beyond individual conversations. The whole process helps you know the customer and how to appeal to them. The sense of empathy we build for them is what gets us there.

Amber: What approach do you take when doing customer interviews?

Tom: I might go in with a few hypotheses and listen to see if they are validated or not, but I never use a script. It’s important to let the conversation flow where it needs to go. I often find that people share information that I wasn’t looking for that can be incredibly useful. Scripts make things too distant. They keep the person you are interviewing at arm’s length and don’t allow for the surprises that can come from a dynamic conversation.

Amber: What excites you the most about your work?

Tom: I love the connection of deeper, more intuitive methods combined with design thinking to create real insights. It’s amazing to be able to learn something about human behavior that wasn’t visible before, have a deeper look at motivations, and uncover strategic opportunities that our clients wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

About Tom Bennett

As an experience strategist at Connective DX, Tom Bennett drives customer experience for clients, including business focus and strategy, experience visioning, and digital roadmapping. Tom acts as a change agent by building relationships with business, technology and product stakeholders to understand and forge alignment around business needs and customer insights as well as the competitive landscape. A master facilitator, Tom brings an intuitive understanding of human behavior and organizational culture to guide collaborative activities, masterfully eliciting and making sense of big ideas.