Research is near and dear to my heart, so I’ve been following the pandemic-related content closely. The coronavirus crisis raises some critical questions for companies and people who conduct research:

  1. How do we conduct research in an era of social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates?
  2. Should we even try? Will people be willing to talk to us?
  3. Will what they say be relevant in 6 months, when 🤞 this is all over?

Most of the writing and talking for the last few weeks has been around the first question: the tools, methodologies and logistics that make remote research possible.

I’d like to address the second and third questions: should we even try? Will what we learn remain relevant? After some reading, conversations with other researchers, and reflection, I’ve landed on an emphatic YES.

And this is the TL;DR: now more than ever, it is vitally important to talk to your customers. First, people’s most urgent needs are closer to the surface right now — they’re more in touch with them, and more willing to share. Second, those needs will not change dramatically once we’re back to normal. The kinds of things we can learn today can make or break a business.

Reason #1: Humanity Laid Bare


At DesignMap, we generally break research up into two sections: feed-forward, or generative research, and feed-back. Feed-forward is research you conduct before generating an artifact, to learn about the goals, motivations, and pain-points of potential customers. Even in collecting feedback on a product or some kind of drawing, wireframe, or some other artifact, it’s helpful to understand what underlying motivations drive people’s feedback.

That probing into what people’s underlying goals are can be difficult sometimes — depending on the type of interview participant, and the type of product, it can feel nearly impossible. I’ve done research with network security folks, and lemme tell you, they are not quick to disclose what keeps them up at night or what they like to do after work. They are paid to be paranoid… many don’t even have LinkedIn profiles! Or if you’re talking about, say, database administration, research participants may feel alarmed when you try to get to know them as complete human beings. Do they have hobbies? Families? And yet, learning what makes them tick is exactly what yields game-changing results. Here are two examples:

Example #1: What Sarbanes-Oxley and Little League Have In Common


I was doing research for a company that built tools for IT professionals to track and record TCP/IP packets on their networks. This was required to remain compliant with regulations like HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley. At first blush, it didn’t seem like the sexiest project. BUT, it supported my theory everything is interested when you get into the details. While we had an early hypothesis that we should take all this complicated, boring stuff and provide a radically simplified interface to minimize friction (indeed, minimize interaction at all), we talked to a few users first, and learned some extremely interesting things:

First, these guys, almost without exception, loved their jobs. They tended to be more senior, and to be in their late 30s or early 40s, because the job was important and managers didn’t want to hand it off to someone junior. They had no staff, just did the work themselves. Beyond those shared characteristics, they fell into two camps: One camp loved to dive into the data to sleuth out what was happening on the network. The other camp, frankly, wanted to leave the office at 5pm every day because they had Little League to coach, dance recitals to attend, and general family stuff to do. Few of them were particularly interested in being promoted into a management or any other role — they had found the perfect fit.

In both cases, they didn’t want their boss to think their job was too easy. Their bosses left them alone, they left their bosses alone. The simplified interface that we thought we’d be doing them a favor with would have confounded their ability to do what they really cared about: be valued by their bosses for doing something hard, get to data sleuth, or get to leave.

But lemme tell you how hard it was to get those IT guys to really level with me about not wanting a promotion, not wanting their bosses to think their job was easy, being soccer coaches and prioritizing time with their families: it was not. It took a lot of conversation and some poking around at the photos on their desks. But without that hard-to-get information, ultimately an updated, “simplified” UX would have been great design, but bad business. Because these guys would have told their bosses that our solution “isn’t powerful enough,” and that would have been it.

Example #2: Walking as a Sport


Another client sold sports equipment. We were conducting research with people who represented extremely high sales over the previous year. Our clients were very proud of the caché of their brand and the “hard core-ness” of their athletes. They were looking for new opportunities to grow their business and so we were talking to devoted customers. One of the research participants was puzzling — her sport was walking. Just walking. She walked daily, and she purchased all kinds of “equipment”, essentially clothes. The client team was in the room with me for the interview (not something I normally recommend, but in this case we were training them to conduct their own research, interspersed with live observation). They were almost dismissive of this woman as an athlete… she wasn’t a competitive speed walker, she just liked to walk. Sometimes she purchased two of the same item and didn’t realize it until she went to put the new one away and found the first, tags still on it. She loved my clients’ brand, she loved shopping, she loved walking, but was she “hard core” worthy of their brand and time? Or just an eccentric out-lier?

We talked for a long while, and the more I listened, the more I liked this woman (as I find always happens during research, if you listen well). Truth be told, I was a little frustrated with the teams indifference to her. So I kept probing. What did she like about walking? How did she feel while she walked? After? Finally I asked, “Why walking?” She had a lot to say about convenience and not needing special equipment, etc. etc. But after I sat silently for a while, her discomfort moved her to fill the awkwardness, and she explained that she’d been a devoted skier for years, but she’d had an accident and lost the vision in one eye. Without depth perception, she didn’t feel safe on the slopes anymore and opted for something that was less dangerous.

The client team was stunned. Suddenly this was a person they liked and felt for. After that, they began to seriously consider a market of sports-switchers: people who were serious athletes, but who had families or accidents or moves to different physical environments, and who were looking for content and help starting something new.

She wasn’t a paranoid security guy or a shy developer, but the research participant still wasn’t sure if I wanted to know about her accident. It took a while to build rapport and trust to learn what we needed to know, and to point out an entirely new opportunity for our client.

Enter a Global Pandemic


In the current environment, I have seen people ask and share personal information at a level I’ve never experienced before. With work all happening via Zoom calls, “professionalism” is peeled back, and humanity is laid, if not bare, “bare-er”.

I know that a potential client doesn’t make his bed. He and his girlfriend don’t have a closet door, and she can’t tell when he’s in a video conference. My Partner Chuck (of course) has a perfect minimalist / midcentury bedroom and does make his bed. He has framed pictures of his kids’ artwork on the walls. Having spent the last 5 months with a dumb green screen on my chair, I’ve taken it off, and revealed that my bedside table is teetering with good intentions.

With the physically sharing, and stressful time, comes personal sharing as well. I’ve known Chuck for 15 years, and didn’t know that his dog wears sweaters or that his kids follow its horoscope. Fifteen minutes into a call with a woman I’d never met before, we were commiserating over our distress at trying to get teenagers out of bed and doing schoolwork during a quarantine.

Uncertain times are proving to surface things normally buried under layers of routine, professionalism, and normalcy. A new intimacy is being ushered in, and the pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to get to people’s underlying needs, goals, and motivations more quickly and poignantly than we’ll ever be able to again. This level of understanding makes or breaks businesses.

Reason #2: The Constancy of Need


It is bold, but hopefully not cynical, to take this unique moment to talk to people and ask how they’re doing, what they need, what’s in their way. Will what we learn today still be true tomorrow? If we work at a fundamental level, absolutely.

If we can understand and meet people’s needs in a way that is truly helpful for them today, it’s not going to stop being helpful in a year.

Some examples we’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • A bank has an old-school mortgage business that historically was just there because “everybody’s got to have a mortgage business”. With only piecemeal digital solutions in place, there is currently no way to inquire a refinance online, and no was to sign paperwork digitally. With the new interest rates, their business has multiplied 4x in the last three weeks. They are working quickly to design and build a good digital solution meets their customers’ needs for physical safety and convenience. They won’t be throwing that away post-pandemic… their clients’ needs will continue to include convenience, especially for younger and tech-comfortable clients.
  • Zoom has apparently noticed that users most often don’t join video and audio at the same time, and have added some lightweight status information, just in the last week or so. They’ve also added waiting rooms. Post-covid, people will continue to want to avoid being interrupted or feeling like they're interrupting, whether they’re physically in a room or not!
  • Friends of ours are revitalizing a mobile app that supports remote ophthalmology exams, something that will still be needed after the lockdown is over. There are other times and places that an ophthalmologist needs to be consulted but they aren’t physically present — maybe there isn’t one locally, or it’s the middle of the night in an emergency room, where there isn’t an ophthalmologist on staff.
  • There are countless more examples, collected by TrendWatching and Business of Purpose, the New York Times, Forbes, and on and on.

Zoom's new waiting room feature

Underlying needs, for the ability to control one’s time, communicate with a group, or see a qualified specialist, won’t go away. Identifying these needs now does two things for us then: captures them when they’re at their most available, and gives companies the opportunity to respond to them immediately, creating both short-term and long-term wins.

It’s a time for great innovation, because we are all called to help those around us. And they will share what they need more than ever before. Call clients. Talk to customers. Raise new ideas, and share new perspectives. Fear is no excuse. Let’s do what we can do.

If you want to do talk to customers about what underlying needs and goals are surfacing for them during this crazy time, but are strapped for time, resources, or experience, send us an email.