The challenge of deeply understanding our customers

As designers we often do research or get research insights by a specialized team. This research work is always impactful and can lead to smaller and large changes. Over the years, I realized that one of the challenges of research — especially the kind that is wider, deeper, and richer — is to make it deeply understood and well assimilated by the people that can benefit from it.

By assimilation here I mean two aspects:

  • The individual deep understanding of the customer
  • The shared understanding of it across a large product team with mixed roles

Individual deep understanding

I usually categorize research into two different kinds. One that is goal-oriented: we want to shed some light on something, and we design something to understand it. Another is wider, and it’s more about an open discovery that can lead to insights about customers and markets.

In the past year in Automattic we ramped up our research capabilities and we raised our bar for the second kind of research, thanks to some amazing people that led the work.

When I first started to study the results, I found a lot of good confirmations on hypotheses we had, as well as some excellent mental models to think about our customers. While reading through I was nodding along: all excellent material to work with.

For example, one small piece of insight for one type of our customers is:

They’d like to be free to focus on the strategic side of their business.

By applying this to one of our features, like WordPress·com Stats, we can understand that they want more insight to drive their strategic side of the business. So we can benchmark with competitors and widely available tools like Google Analytics, and we can figure out what features we can give them. Enlightened by this kind of information, it’s clear we can already make some good strategic choices.

Then again, the research didn’t just provide high level models and guidance, it was enriched with more details about our customers. While the above allows us to drive the product from a high level perspective, we need to spend more time and dive deeper into the details about our customers:

I’ve no fear of the computer, I’m just not interested. I have bigger fish to fry.
— J.

Going down one level of abstractions we then understand that yes, this type of customer wants more power, but the kind of power they want isn’t the Google Analytics type of power. They don’t want more information. They want the right kind of information. When we look at them close, we see they don’t have time. And yet… not having time compared to Google Analytics we can provide a richer tool right?

If we go even deeper, this is an anchoring problem: we shouldn’t compare our stats with Google Analytics. We should compare them with our customer needs. Benchmarking our competitors and similar products is good, but in reality we should avoid get anchored to them. Spending more time in having a deep understanding on this research tell us clearly that the kind of power they look for is the power to… getting information but without spending any time on it. Our stats offering is truly simple and offers good information, but for someone that wants to spend zero time on it, it’s already a lot of work.

This is the same general direction we were going with the high level understanding, but now it’s deeper. It’s rooted in the actual day-to-day life of our customers.

Shared understanding

The above is an individual process, I went through it, as many of my colleagues did. Then again, it’s also a lot of work to get through all the various layers needed to get that deeper understanding. To connect the research with the product work we’re doing. How to make sure all the deep, insightful level of research reaches everyone in the company that should be understanding it? How to give everyone time to work through a large amount of data and insights in a way that people not only know it, but they deeply understand it?

While the level of assimilation is, ultimately, up to the individual person – we can’t force people to learn, if we could, we wouldn’t have so many problems in creating education that works – we can still design the way the information is provided creating a communication plan and crafting the message in a way that can be more easily assimilated.

This isn’t just about the content on its own, we need to think on the context where the content is assimilated.  Imagine attending a musical performance from a great artist during a holiday, after having walked through a few rooms in a beautiful building, in silence, compared with the same performance in a noisy street while commuting to work. Would you have even paid attention?

That’s why, especially at scale in large organizations, we need to use our knowledge in how people learn and how to shape the communication to make sure that people get a deep understanding of the information available. The solutions we can find might sound simplistic at times, but it can be just a matter of helping them to find one hour time to work through it.

By Erin 'Folletto' Casali

Designing Product Experiences at Automattic · Advisor · Mentor · Speaker · Baker Framework Founder · ManifestoIbridi Author


>We should compare them with our customer needs.

You made me think about how we compare an MVP thought, to an already succeeding model, and then go back to real customer needs — and then triangulate to be able to do one of two things: 1/ find stronger product-market fit, OR 2/ plot a path to solving the REAL problem that might not be addressed by the MVP *plus* the competition.

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