A nice article in The New York Times Business section on customer research: Get Out of That Rut and Into the Shower (I can’t vouch for the title though). I really liked the fact that this brief article steered clear of the usual academic rhetoric about anthropology and ethnographic methods. Instead, just a couple of quick anecdotes that illustrate why it’s so important to get out and observe your customers.

For those of us who spend our time turning customer research and understanding into solutions we know that all forms of customer-centered design are not created equal. Here is a model I developed several years ago to help illustrate the point:

I am the user/customer

Customer empathy is a great thing and sometimes all you can do is put yourself in a potential customer’s shoes. It certainly beats designing for yourself and assuming everyone else will love it. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re almost never close to a customer’s world and even if you are, you bring all sorts of baggage, bias and insider knowledge to the equation. I call this the “Brains Around the Table” approach.

I asked the user/customer

Asking the customer is by far better than pretending to be the customer. Still we know from experience that customers are prone to telling us what they think we want to hear and they’re terribly bad at imagining alternative futures. In fact, quite often a customer’s perception may be dramatically different from reality. Still, we can gleen insightful information in this way if we understand the limits.

I observed the user/customer

By observing the customer you see how they really live, work and play. You see real experiences in action as they unfold. You see problems and fixes that the customer may not even be aware of. You see the patterns of their behavior that point to new ideas, solutions, products, services and futures. These patterns are the foundation of innovation!