Several years ago and courtesy of the TED Women Conference, I got my hands on SY Partner’s Superpowers Card Deck. Before forcing everyone on my team to run through the deck, I experimented on myself.

My Superpower? Complexity Busting.

And yes, I do truly love to create order from chaos or, as SY phrases it, “tame unruly thoughts.”

Which is why I now feel compelled to tame the unruly thoughts that many people have about customer research.

Most companies believe that it’s important to understand their customers and many of them invest millions of dollars in trying to do just that. Unfortunately, most of them are wasting their money by investing in the wrong tools.

Here’s a cheat sheet so you don’t make the same mistake


In-depth, one-on-one interviews

  • WHY you should use it: To discover and explore what you don’t know. When you are exploring a new space (or one you haven’t explored in a while) and you need to discover both what is going on and why, one-on-one in-depth interviews are the best (and only) way to start to bring clarity to a situation.
  • HOW to do it: Don’t let the name fool you, these should rarely be truly one-to-one interviews. I prefer to structure them as two-on-ones: person 1 is being interviewed, person 2 is the interviewer and asks most of the questions, and person 3 takes notes and occasionally chimes in with questions that person 2 might have forgotten to ask.
  • WHEN to use it: At the beginning of any project that feels ambiguous or for which you don’t have a lot of pre-existing and up-to-date data to rely on. It’s also a good exercise to do at least once a year as a way of ensuring that your data actually is up to date and reflects changing customer attitudes and behaviors.

Pro Tips:

  • Face to face is best so that you can see non-verbal cues that indicate if someone is holding back information, struggling to understand, or having an epiphany.
  • Don’t rush these. Plan 1–2 hours for these interviews as the conversations need to be EPIC (empathetic, perspective-giving, insightful, and create connection).
  • Follow the rule of 10. Qualitative data tends ot be directional at best so don’t waste a lot of time and money interviewing hundreds of people. Instead, interview 10 customers then reassess to see if you need to interview more. In my experience, people 1–4 tend to provide the most new data, people 5–7 help focus you on the most important things, and people 8–10 confirm the most important things or add interesting spins that can be explored through other means.

Focus Groups

  • WHY you should use it: To develop, enhance, and refine ideas and prototypes. Creativity abounds when people can bounce ideas around and build on what others say. For this reason, group research, like focus groups, is best when you’re giving people something to react to but you’ve already done the homework to identify the right problem and you’re simply giving them a solution to which to respond.
  • HOW to do it: Focus groups should be heavily facilitated with structured exercises to keep the group focused. There’s lots of ways to host focus groups — in-person in research facilities, on-line communities, even group texts. What matters most is how you facilitate the group, ensuring that the collective energy is focused on generating the information and insights that will be most helpful.
  • WHEN to use it: After you have prototyped solutions to the challenges identified through the one-on-one interviews. You want to give people something to react to, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a 3D printed prototype or a few sentences on a piece of paper. What matters is that you have a facilitator guiding people through exercises designed to understand what they like, what they don’t like, what they think, and what they feel.

Pro Tip: Make your prototype as ugly as possible. In general, people don’t want to be mean or hurt your feelings. As a result, the more refined your prototype, the more likely people are to think that you spent a lot of time and effort creating it. They’ll go out of their way to find things that they like, even defaulting to “I think people will like this….” (which is code for “I don’t like this but I’m sure someone else will). If you want honest feedback (and you do), make the prototype ugly.



  • WHY you should use it: To understand the relative priority of things and to build confidence in your recommendations. As mentioned above, qualitative research insights are directional and, even though they’re usually at least 80% right, some projects, executives, or companies want greater certainty before taking action. Surveys can get you that certainty in a far more efficient and effective way than additional qualitative research because they enable you to reach hundreds, even thousand, of people at once and collect data on a standard list of questions and answers.
  • HOW to do it: This depends on the complexity of your survey. Self-serve options, like Survey Monkey and Typeform, are great for simple (e.g. 10 question) surveys to a broad group of people (e.g. women 18–34) or to an existing database of people (e.g. customers who have returned warranty cards). For surveys that are more complex (dozens of questions, use question logic), require a large base (100+) of respondents and/or are directed to a hard to find or access population (e.g. cardiac surgeons, people who have spent over $300 on gluten-free products in the past 3 months), it is best to work with a quantitative research firm that has the expertise, experience, and technology required to design and field the survey as well as analyze the data.
  • WHEN to use it: When you are confident that you know the right questions to ask AND the right answer options to provide. In other words, after you’ve done qualitative research or when you’re doing something as a matter of course (e.g. post-purchase survey). And even then, it’s a good idea to include open-text response options just in case the answers you provide don’t include the answer your customers want to give.

Pro Tip: If you’re working with a qualitative researcher who claims they also do quantitative research, ask them to provide specific examples of past work that it at the same scope and complexity of the work you want to do. Quantitative research tends to become the “sole source of truth” in companies so it’s worth investing in the right experts for this type of work.

In closing…

Customer research is an incredibly complex field which means it’s easy to get overwhelmed and make the wrong decision. Hopefully this simple overview busts some of that complexity and quiets some unruly thoughts.

I’m curious…did this help you find the right type of research for your needs? What did I miss? What would you add? Share your thoughts and help all pf us get smarter and better at this important work!