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How to Build Empathy with Customer Research?

How to Build Empathy with Customer Research?

When building a great product or service, you need to build a user-centric ecosystem of processes and people. It’s not a change you can effect in a couple of days, however some aspects of it can be implemented relatively quickly. The first step is gradual investment in understanding and designing for your customer. Once you start applying user-centered research methods into your product design process, all of the stakeholders will sure see the benefits. They are not just tangible, quantitative results, but can help to build you resonance with your audience, empathy that so many companies are lacking.

In this article we highlighted the most popular user research methods and aim to prove the usefulness of using them in teams of any size. Relationships with the customers and in-depth understanding of their needs are becoming the competitive advantage of many successful companies.

Missing out on design research is simply a risk nowadays! Only doing your homework will prevent you from coming up with useless features that you might want to copy from your competition.

Spending time with your customers - ethnography

Ethnography is a study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher attempts to observe society from the point of view of the subject of the study. It is a methodology widely used in the product or service design industry in order to conduct exploratory research. In our case, the subject of the study would be your customer base.

This is the type of research that allows designers, marketers or anyone else to explore the world of the customer. Such exploration allows you to treat the customer as the starting point for any idea generation, ensuring that innovation is driven by their pains and needs.

Ethnographic studies consist of three stages: preparation, research and analysis. All of them are equally important and can be conducted by following the best practices, however we couldn’t fit such an in depth topic into our short ebook. If you want to explore this and other research methods in a brief, concise form – refer to “Just Enough Research” by Erika Hall. Ethnographic studies involve pretty complicated research methods, therefore we recommend hiring professionals to conduct them. Over at Pomegranate, our team has experience in this type of research and are always excited to undertake new projects.


A research plan is crucial in preparing a good study – you need to have a definition of the target group you want to explore, the high-level problem or topic you will discuss and observe. It’s also crucial to find relevant participants for the study – you don’t want to end up testing a disruptive gaming website with 60-year-olds…

The research plan document is important as it gives your team (or external research team) a clear direction about what needs to be researched and helps get new people on board easier.


Contextual inquiry is the most popular ethnographic method – it means interviewing your participants in their natural environment. It allows you to put everything they say in context and gather rich insights – you can observe their expressions, body language, tasks and the way they organise their environment and interact with it. Researchers gather huge volumes of data from this type of research and spend many days analysing it trying to find patterns that will be translated into actionable insights.


Participant observation is incredibly useful for understanding dynamics in groups. Observation is integrated with note taking, which adds a layer of richness to interviews. These methods can be done by researchers who are not comfortable with interviewing, as it doesn’t require such skills. However, whoever you designate  to observe the customer should be very perceptive and focused on maximising results.

For example, if you’re creating an application for ordering food, you can easily go to the most popular lunch franchise stores and observe how people interact with the employees and with the shop environment. However, if something doesn’t make sense, the researchers can always break the silence and ask for clarification.


Interviewers need a particular set of skills and, of course, to have conducted solid preparation beforehand. It is always the best to hire professionals if you don’t have in-house researchers. However if you need to use a team member for that task, make sure that the person prefers listening to talking. You need to capture as much as possible without too much interference.

A common mistake in conducting ethnographic interviews is setting a strict script to follow. With a script you have to follow there is no space for necessary improvisation. Open-ended questions and following up on the interviewee’s thoughts will make the conversation more organic and exploratory. When conducting an interview like this it’s important to look out for topics that are important to the interviewee, even if you have a list of keywords in your research plan. You need to let them speak and be prepared to follow their lead when necessary.


Gathering all the qualitative data from ethnography is only half the job. Then it’s time to analyse all of the insights, look for patterns and construct conceptual models based on them. The best way to analyse insights is collaboration of a cross-functional team, as every field will find in different angle for the same findings.

Research findings structured after a great analysis session

When all insights are analysed and made actionable, they should help you set base requirements for your design process, no matter whether you’re designing a  website, a service or a physical product!

Regular polls and surveys

Polls and surveys, the most popular marketing research methods, are great tools to validate existing ideas. However they have limited capabilities in generating new ones. It’s always good to mix qualitative and quantitative research methods, therefore validating some initial insights and concepts is crucial to squeezing the most out of your research.

Sometimes taglines or logos need to be researched and it may come down to selecting the tone of voice that resonates most with your target audience. However it’s important to remember that quantitative data won’t give you deep insights on WHY something is not working, it will just tell which versions are preferred or select one option from the list of reasons. It is important to bear in mind that within the quantitative approach, the researcher exerts a total control over respondent’s answers. That’s why it’s important to leave every research and testing study open for any type of input.

HotJar allows you to recruit research participants straight from your website

In order to find the right sample of participants (you will need to do some calculations in regard to statistical confidence in order to build a sample that is representative, scalable and reproducible) you can either recruit them from your existing customer base, capture people’s data on your website or use an  external recruitment agency. Just make sure you include incentives in your budget research, as not all of the participants will join the study for free!

User testing

User testing is extremely important to truly see if the experience you’ve created resonates with the end user. You can observe how the audience interacts with the end product or service. The insights you gain are invaluable!

Suddenly the taglines appear to be misunderstood, the button labels are confusing and the checkout doesn’t work the way every customer thought it should. User testing sessions are true eye-openers. For a lot of designers and developers, they may be depressing, however mature professionals will understand the power of user feedback and will harness it to deliver the best solutions possible.

User testing recordings or reports are a great tool when trying to convince more senior stakeholders to invest in refining the experience. Excel spreadsheets might not always be enough!

User testing can be useful in testing basically anything, not only digital experiences – you can record your audience interacting with physical products or more complicated touchpoints, in-store shopping or a car showroom.

When doing user testing you can also invite your users to join the design process – if something is not working, ask them to sketch their ideas out. You can always find something you can apply straight away or a bit of inspiration for future improvements.

Enhance analytics

This type of research will be specifically relevant for web, mobile or other digital experiences, as people have still not mastered gathering quantitative data from physical touchpoints.

Although the qualitative data you gather from user testing is extremely insightful, sometimes it needs to be validated with quantitative information. People sometimes don’t tell the whole truth or exaggerate in order to give more socially acceptable answers. The behavioural data they generate on your website won’t lie – it’s objective.

With modern web analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, you can track metrics for basically anything – search terms, navigation, clicks, mouse hovering. The data can be expressed in a variety of ways – some of them will be easier to analyse than others.

It’s important to analyse whether people click and go where we want them to. Data sheets, heatmaps and user recordings will help you understand what is happening in which sections of your digital experience. You can also test more complicated interactions – tracking how people use interactive elements of the website, such as filters or forms. Read more about the tools we use in UX projects.

However, setting up goals, conversions and other necessary adjustments needs to be aligned to your business goals and activities – analysing everything and using only 5% of it is just a waste of time. Harnessing the right metrics can give your company substantial competitive advantage, as more and more companies use big data to inform and improve their offers and automate their management processes.

Innovation driven by users, not by the competition

After understanding your users needs and problems, you will need to prioritise your offer components to fit them.

Especially in highly competitive markets, it may seem that launching a new feature on your website, just because your competitors don’t have it yet, makes sense. Insightful competitive audits are important, however you shouldn’t just take ideas from the competition for the same reason you shouldn’t cheat on exams – you don’t know if your classmate’s answers are correct. What may make sense to your competitor’s value proposition and their audience, won’t necessarily fit for your business.

This approach leads to an overload of features and functions, often called featuritis. It was described by design guru Don Norman in his classic book ‘Design of Everyday Things’:

“Complexity probably increases as the square of the features: double the number of features, quadruple the complexity. Provide ten times as many features, multiply the complexity by one hundred”

Softwares that suffer from featuritis often don’t have the features prioritised, which results in creating interfaces like this one

It’s an extremely dangerous disease that infects companies who forget about the core principle of good design – minimalism. Google, AirBnb, Instagram, Twitter – all these businesses focus on polishing their simple, core proposition.

From inception till now, these businesses haven’t been cheating on exams – they’ve been providing services that served particular needs and made satisfying them extremely easy.

Featuritis is a deadly disease. If the top-priority information or functions on your website are hard to find due to clutter, users might just go and visit a competitor’s website. As the average search session length on mobile devices is 7.62 min9, it is clear that users spend some time on opening multiple search results, rephrasing and filtering the search results. With search results working in milliseconds, it’s easier now more than ever for users to visit competitors’ websites. Minimalism may seem counter-intuitive and, to some extent, you need to keep up with the  market trends to stay afloat, however bear in mind that there is always a feature saturation point at which a website may stop being usable and start being annoying.

Michal Mazur

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