Have you heard the one about Sony and the boombox? Among the canon of folklore for budding user researchers is that of a 1980s Sony focus-group. It’s the height of neon, Madonna, and high-waisted denim. And the company wants to stay on the top of portable boomboxes (or maybe it was Walkmans?). They invite a bunch of young adults to discuss new designs and features. Among the test ideas is a departure from standard black to a bright yellow casing, and the users respond positively. They even suggest that the price of the yellow boombox must be higher. What more do you need? Put in the orders for yellow immediately! (And promote the value of asking customers what they want!) Right?
Not so fast.
As the story goes, when the session ended, each participant was allowed to select a boombox on their way out as a gift. At the exit of the building, there was a stack of black boomboxes and a stack of yellow. Almost every participant took the black.
Unfortunately, this lesson hasn’t been fully absorbed. At EchoUser, we see these pitfalls in many organizations’ approaches to product discovery. It is heartening to see so many companies embrace customer-centricity. Yet the natural questions people want to ask (What would help you? Would you buy this?) are frankly the wrong ones. And the consequences of asking those questions and using that information at face value can be significant. In our partnership with clients, we often have to reorient their view of what and how customers can teach us.
Our childhood intuition was right: there’s something really backwards about “do as I say, not as I do.” The most clear takeaway from the boombox story is that observed behavior is more important than what someone says. In fact, there is a whole body of human psychology research that points to the gap between our intentions and our behavior. Our users (people) are seldom aware of what they really want, even further away from being able to articulate it. If we aren’t careful, our interview questions simply surface a variety of biases that don’t contain much actionable information. Furthermore, there is daylight between their opinion and the factors of business strategy and feasibility that make successful products. But, if we can find ways to observe what our participants do and think, we are much closer to actually being able to predict the value of new features and new ideas.
Let’s step through some specific techniques to get more reliable insights.
In research terms, this conversation goes into the realms of field study and contextual inquiry. These approaches prioritize observing people within their actual settings and doing their actual tasks. Hypothetically, if we could have visited the homes of the boombox participants, we might have noticed that for all the bright colors of pop culture advertisements, the furniture and colors at home were much more muted. Or perhaps we could have deduced that for a big purchase like a boombox, most youth wanted what was known and recognizable, not to stand out. These contextual insights come from shadowing customers, from actually seeing their environments and how they utilize products. Furthermore, our customers can provide us better information when they talk about what they are doing and why while they are doing it, rather than summarizing their opinions outside of the actual process.
In-person observations and interactions are logistically challenging and can be time-intensive, especially given the shift to remote workplaces. Furthermore, certain products (e.g. software) may be quite reasonable to test online. So let’s grant that for cost and timeliness, a majority of our product discovery might happen via web conferencing. Rather than defaulting to a standard interview, could you:
Beyond contextual inquiry, there are a variety of interview techniques that help participants retell past events in a reliable way. Broadly, these techniques are called “guided storytelling” and relate to popular UX activities like journey mapping, personas, and jobs-to-be-done. Here, the interviewer guides the participant to walk through a process. The base question is something like, “When you did [something of interest to the interviewer], what happened first?” You might probe into areas that are the most interesting in that initial step, and then ultimately prompt “and then what happened?” There are some interviewer tips to aid memory recall, but ultimately, the participant’s real behavioral story begins to unfold. Across multiple interviewees, patterns of thought processes, pain points, and goals begin to emerge. There is nuance to this technique, but it’s one of the most powerful tools to understand what a customer really wants by learning what they really did.
Lastly, we might learn to simply ask better questions that get at customers' underlying motivations and processes. Replace “What ideas do you have to improve our product?” with “What is the most frustrating to you about X?” Replace “How likely would you be to buy this?” with “What factors go into deciding if you would use a product like this?” These questions surface the context that matters most.
So we’ve covered some good news. There are ways to get meaningful information from customers—a whole spectrum from more to less complex: everything from field study, to contextual inquiry by conference call, guided storytelling, and better interview questions.
Let’s close by addressing a natural consequence of these techniques (and a topic for a future post). Sorry, but your customers can’t get you off the hook. As nice as it would be, they aren’t the ones to articulate your roadmap or to tell you the next innovation that will boost sales and make you a hero. Every approach I discussed demands analysis and thought after performing the research. In that Sony conference room and in your discovery conference call, the researcher is the sleuth, carefully looking below the surface.
Ready to apply this to your business context?
Product leaders everywhere are adding customer interviews to their job descriptions. Our expert researchers can equip you to get the most out of those conversations.
By Chloe Markley and Brian Salts-Halcomb
Published on June 13, 2023