As the third pillar of a qualitative research initiative to build greater customer understanding, observational interviews offer more insights about the pros and cons of your customer experience.
Observational interviews (OIs) are one of the best techniques experience designers have to help them understand and empathize with any type of audience, from customers and partners to employees and other end-users.
While this type of customer research can lead to more questions and assumptions than answers, OIs are excellent opportunities to inform and educate organizations on the current state of the overall customer experience. Specifically, OIs present a non-obtrusive way of gathering information about how customers perform everyday interactions, for example:
- What they are doing (or trying to do)
- How they are doing it
- When they are doing it
- Why they do it that way
- Whether they are completing the experience as designed or not.
Organizations most often use OIs for digital products, applications and solutions, but many also use them internally to improve process and operations. By observing people in their natural setting, OIs allow researchers and designers to examine how things get done, either by a team or an individual, without being prompted in any way. You can analyze this data to answer these questions:
- What do I see them do?
- How do they react?
- What do I hear them say?
- How long does it seem to take?
- Where did they get stuck?
- What is their mental make-up at the beginning, middle and end of the task?
- Who else is with them, or who do they talk to when doing the task?
The deep level of understanding OIs deliver is simply not attainable with more traditional research vehicles. Many organizations will do these types of interviews in conjunction with other qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews (IDIs) or journey mapping, while others will do this as a standalone learning exercise. Either way, the data earned is invaluable to unlocking the keys to customer success.
Observational Interviews Vs. Customer Interviews and Journey Mapping
Unlike customer interviews and journey mapping, OIs explore vague or undefined areas. They allow you to answer more “why?” questions and discover more about causation: What is happening in and around customers that may be influencing, causing or disabling their behavior and desired outcome?
That makes the OIs great for solving large, complex problems or challenges that may not seem to correlate to each other. Purposefully, they expose behaviors and activities users are often unable to recall or describe during traditional research methods, such as in-depth interviews. You can only observe these behaviors and activities when people are in their natural environments performing real tasks with real things.
Of course, this type of inquiry requires a fair amount of prep work. That work includes not only the logistics of recruiting subjects, providing a safe, friendly location, and training interviewers, but also understanding that you are trying to solve for a different type of problem.
However, the results are well worth it. The natural setting of an OI makes subjects more comfortable while allowing interviewers to build empathy, see and sense more. The flexible format also allows researchers to pivot quickly so they can test hypotheses that emerge on the fly only through a subject’s words and behavior. Otherwise, you may miss these insights which results in missed opportunities for delivering better experiences.
Sounds Good! How Do I Do It?
The basics for conducting observational interviews are simple to state, but as I’ve suggested, they may take more work than you anticipate. Departments or team managers must work together to create a hypothesis and assumptions, as well as:
- Identify a subject area to learn more about and define why you need to explore it
- Create a plan to guide your inquiry
- Determine which people and activities to observe
- Choose a channel, location or both in which to observe
- Capture observations using various modalities and formats (videos, photos and notes).
As an example, let’s consider one of our recent financial services clients. We first identified their annual client review process as the subject area. Next, we created a plan for the type of behavior we wanted to document: how financial advisors and their clients navigated their way through both a virtual and in-person client review. Because we knew we wanted both virtual and in-person, our channels were both online and physical, either at the advisor’s office or at the client’s home, providing natural environments for both. Finally, we used a combination of extensive note-taking and video to gather our data.
We also used additional software added to devices that gathered some data without everything having to be manually written down. This allowed designers to focus more on larger environmental influences.
As we watched both advisors and clients navigate the annual review process, we noted their body language, their words, their tone of voice and more. The problem and the solution quickly presented themselves:
- Problem: Both advisors and clients had to navigate through multiple screens and apps to review the information. An additional challenge? Advisors also needed screens to follow through the interview, reminding them to ask about certain items depending on the customer’s information.
- Solution: SimView technology that let advisors and clients control the interface at the same time, but with different views for advisors to help them guide the conversation on their side. The tool pulled all the necessary data and configurations into one screen and distributed to both advisors and clients.
Couldn’t anyone quickly see that all parties were having a hard time? Of course, but the OI provided additional information not only about their pain but about how they should tailor the solution to solve it. In other words, the OI provided the reasoning behind the struggle, not only that a struggle was happening.
With access to a better user interface, both advisors and their clients now find it easier to follow along in the conversation and to ask more salient questions about the performance of the account, maximizing their time with the advisor and creating a more valuable experience.
With this blog, I’ve completed my review of three qualitative research methodologies that capture different elements of the customer experience. In-person interviews, often the first and most recommended starting point, reveal deep levels of specificity about what the customer wants from their experience. Journey mapping visualizes the delivery of that experience from beginning to end. And with OIs, you can get more of the “why” behind your customers’ experience and the pros and cons of the experience you currently provide.
Armed with this knowledge of how to gather better customer insights, you are now better prepared to make decisions about how and why to invest in customer understanding capabilities and customer experience management, the next evolution of customer experience research.