by Dan Woychick
Last weekend, I agreed to help a friend install his new home theater. First, we needed to remove the baseboard so we could keep all the new wires hidden from view. Lacking a crowbar, my friend grabbed the nearest screwdriver and proceeded to gouge the wooden baseboard and scratch the painted wall. As any do-it-yourselfer knows, using the wrong tool can make a small project a lot bigger.
Smart communications professionals recognize the importance of gathering consumer insights. Unfortunately, sometimes, they also reach for the wrong tool.
Lack of focus
When seeking audience opinion, the tried-and-true focus group is often the research tool of choice. Get a moderator, some pizza or doughnuts, and 8-10 people in a room, then watch the insights fly. But qualitative research from a group of strangers gathered around a table may not yield the insights you need.
Focus groups are best used when you have little knowledge about how your product, service or organization is perceived. They can give you a good starting point for further, targeted research. More often, you need specific information.
If, like me, you’re lacking a degree in cultural anthropology, interviewing a representative sample of your users about their needs is the next best thing. Interacting with and observing individuals one-to-one often reveals truths that remain hidden in a group setting.
It’s common practice to conduct this kind of research when embarking on a website redesign. Individual test subjects answer questions and complete a series of tasks, giving designers insight into how the site can be made more functional.
A similar approach can be useful whenever “navigation” is involved, such as with magazines, forms, and environmental signage. With as few as 4–5 people, we’ve gathered useful feedback simply by watching and asking a few questions. For example:
- How often do you currently read (or use) this [publication, form, building]?
- What is your overall impression?
- Do you find this valuable, relevant, informative, etc.?
- Is it easy to find the information you’re looking for?
- Are there other sources you rely on to get similar information? Where?
- How does this make you feel about the organization?
By keeping things simple, it’s easier to commit to an iterative process, conducting tests early and often.
Quality, not quantity
Quantitative research is useful when an organization wants to benchmark results over time. Many people place their trust in cold, hard data – the more of it the better. Seeking statistically valid numbers, however, presents two big hurdles – time and budget.
Depending on what is being measured – and for what reason – the importance of sample size is often overestimated. If I’ve interviewed five people who have difficulty navigating your website, surveying 500 or 5,000 more provides very little benefit. There are diminishing returns with each additional data point.
Watch, listen and refine
Many decisions are better served by more frequent questioning of fewer people, refining as you go. Making a habit of interviewing your customers will make your organization more responsive and serve as a tool for continual improvement.