Demystifying Customer Research

Voice of the Customer

Demystifying Customer Research

By Elaine Cascio, Vice President  |  October 02, 2013

When asked, most companies admit that they don't spend enough time on user research when developing new customer applications or revamping existing apps. Often they are confused about types and purpose of research, and when to use tools like use cases, personas, focus groups and more. 

What tools should you have in your customer research toolbox and when should you use them?

Focus Groups

Focus groups are valuable for understanding what customers want, how they use what you have available today, and what they would change. We use focus groups when developing or re-designing voice, web or mobile applications. If you have existing applications, ask customers what they like and dislike about them. Ask about other apps they use and why they like them. Probe to see how they feel about proposed changes – have samples or examples ready for them to react to.

Focus groups are an opportunity to understand your customers’ mental models, the words and terminology they use and what they view as key components of useful design. We often use card sorting exercises or give participants sticky notes so they can design their own apps. The insights you get from this kind of participatory design can feed directly into your specifications.

Finally, by getting insight into what is important to customers, focus groups help us start to identify customer centric measures of success.

Key Benefit: Identifying user needs


While focus groups help us understand what our customers say they will do, Personas help us understand their behaviors. Often, market research or customer experience departments have developed personas that can be leveraged across the enterprise. 

Personas capture demographic details but more importantly, they capture behavioral details. For example, a health insurance provider will have multiple Personas that are derived from customer lifecycles as well as interviews with actual customers or ethnographic data. These Personas may include a mother caring for her children, an elderly widow, or a middle-aged blue collar worker. By understanding the different motivations and behaviors of these different Personas, we are better able to predict their responses to stimuli as we design applications.

Key Benefit: Help to create designs that meet the needs of key constituencies

Use Cases

Use cases are often misunderstood and sometimes confused with Personas. At a basic level, a use case includes an actor, his or her purpose or goal, and a scenario, or the steps the actor takes to accomplish the goal. Use cases are developed early in design, used to generate functional requirements, understand roadblocks during design, and often for user acceptance testing. 

An example of a use case is a bank customer (actor) getting money from an ATM (goal). We can all envision the steps to this scenario and understand how they play out in design. By walking through each step and discussing if/then scenarios, use cases not only help with functional requirements, they also help us identify the variables that play a critical role in design.

Key Benefit: Create a framework for design and design decisions

Usability Testing

Usability testing is conducted after a beta or a prototype of an application is developed. The purpose is to make sure that customers understand and can use the application. For example, is the sequence of events intuitive, is the language understandable?

Traditional usability testing has testers work their way through a set of exercises with a facilitator. You are able to see rich visual clues from participants that help you understand their experience. At the end of each exercise, the facilitator asks questions to understand how easy it was to complete the exercise, and how the application can be improved.

Key Benefit: Ensure a positive customer experience, reduce risk and rework

Elaine Cascio is a vice president at Vanguard Communications Corp. (, a consulting firm specializing in customer experience, self service, contact center processes, operations and technology.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox. [Free eNews Subscription]
blog comments powered by Disqus