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Courier Workshop episode 9: User research

Courier Workshop episode 9: User research

Courier Workshop Weekly

Understanding the wants and needs of your customers is essential when you’re creating something. We talked to Katy Marshall, the VP of Pattern Brands, and Ben Witte, the founder of Recess, about how they factored research into their product development processes. And, we got tips from qualitative research consultant Lucy Morris on how to run focus groups and customer interviews that generate useful and actionable research. 

AMIRAH JIWA: From Courier, I'm Amirah Jiwa.

DUNCAN GRIFFITHS NAKANISHI: And I'm Duncan Griffiths Nakanishi. 

AMIRAH: Welcome to Courier's Workshop podcast. Every two weeks, Workshop breaks down one essential business topic and explains how it could be useful for you. Our goal is to get you just the right amount of info to help you apply what we're talking about to what you're working on. I'll be speaking to experts with practical tips and founders with relevant experience.

DUNCAN: And I'll be explaining essential terms and summarising the key takeaways at the end of the show.

AMIRAH: Today, we're talking about user research, which is all about understanding the behaviours, needs and attitudes of your customers. It needs to be part of your product development process because it is what will help you develop a solution that really meets people's needs. Whether you use focus groups or surveys, user research is all about talking to people and getting their input. It's also about observing people so you can get to the heart of what they really mean and what they're really looking for. 

KATY MARSHALL: Observe is great because you actually get to see behaviour unfiltered without any bias.

BEN WITTE: I spend most of my time thinking about what people's actions are telling us they really want, not asking people what they want.

AMIRAH: Our expert guest today is Lucy Morris from boutique qualitative research agency Spinach. Lucy is going to talk us through building a qualitative research process that will help you generate useful and actionable insights to inform your products. 

LUCY MORRIS: ‘Qual’ is just jargon for qualitative research. That's all about understanding the why and what's going on underneath the surface, what motivates people, nitty-gritty detail that explains human motivation or human experience. It's often contrasted with quantitative research, which is all about measuring and scoping and understanding the nature of things at more of a surface broad level. Qualitative is more about getting up behind the surface and really understanding something in depth. They're brilliant together; they work really well together as a perfect complement.

AMIRAH: So what does qualitative research look like?

LUCY: In qualitative research, we're either observing something, or interviewing somebody, or interviewing a few people at the same time. You may have heard of focus groups, that's when we gather people together normally, or historically, it's been face to face. In a room together, having a chat and, from a product perspective, we might have products there as stimulus material for people to tell us their impressions. If it's a one-on-one interview, that might happen in their home, or it might happen via Zoom. We might bring them into a central facility to have a chat with them about something. So there's lots of different ways of engaging people but, broadly, that's what we're doing. We're either watching people, or talking to them, or getting them to interact with each other, as well as the product. 

AMIRAH: Why is investing timing in this kind of research important?

LUCY: People are constantly surprising in terms of the way that they perceive things and the way that they experience things. It's very easy to get caught up in your own perspective as a product developer or someone with a new brand: to be very enthusiastic about something and already have a lot of knowledge that you take for granted. There's nothing that beats putting something in someone's hands, who has no experience of that brand or product or is very set in their ways, and seeing what they do with it, what they think about. You'll be surprised about how much there could be a massive difference there in terms of what you were expecting would happen versus what actually happens.

AMIRAH: At what stage in the product development process should companies use qualitative research?

LUCY: With new product development, it varies. Sometimes, it can be right at the very beginning when they're trying to explore an opportunity and understand a consumer context, market picture or category a bit more. That's the front-end exploratory work. Sometimes they're a bit further along and they've got some ideas, but they're very much work in progress and need nurturing. Other times, they're closer to launch and they need fine-tuning so that they can have their best chance of success when they hit the market. So, qualitative research, because it's really about that in-depth insight I talked about, it can come in any of those three moments along the product development journey.

AMIRAH: And how many people should they be looking to talk to?

LUCY: How many is a hard question to answer with qual because it really depends on who your target is. Often, you might want to talk to core users of your product or brand competitor users. You might want to talk to lapsed users or to think about other variables like gender, age, life stage, social class. There might be psychographics in there – for example, you might be recruiting to a certain sort of attitude or lifestyle.

DUNCAN: Time for the first definition. Psychographics is a method of studying consumers based on their interests, opinions and emotions.

LUCY: There's lots of different ways of thinking about who your target audience are and framing them. It's very rare to only ever have a single target. People don't normally feel comfortable speaking to very, very, very small samples. If it was one particular variable and we were talking about in-depth interviews involving a single person, I would be wanting to do a minimum of three on a single variable.

AMIRAH: Any tips for making these sessions as productive as possible?

LUCY: With product development, the most important is to place products with people and get them using them, ideally in home. Having the right stimulus material is what will probably make the biggest difference. If you're at the very early stages and the product doesn't exist yet, the chances are that there are reference products that you can get hold of to place and still get some meaningful feedback on. 

So, for instance, if you're thinking about launching a new hair product, and you haven't made yours yet, maybe there are some pretty good competitors out there doing something similar – then there's no harm in getting hold of those and placing them with people. If you are further down the line, you definitely want to get prototypes into people's hands. If you are very near launch, at that point, it's probably just about fine-tuning. You should be well past the point of screenings; you shouldn't have lots of prototypes, maybe you only have one or two. 

Doing any of this unbranded is an even better idea. If you can place unbranded prototypes with people, you get a pure read of the experience and the benefits on people. It's always great practice to reveal who the brand is, if the brand is currently in existence, because then you get a whole other level of response, which might be: 'Wow, I like it even more now it's so and so'; or sometimes the reverse: 'Gosh, this is really dreadful, I wouldn't expect that of this brand.' 

AMIRAH: How about advice around asking the right questions?

LUCY: There's a whole load of best practice around interviewing: not asking lots of direct questions, not asking why, even though we want to know why, giving people time to talk, not interrupting. ‘Why’ is one of those questions that can feel like a criticism and that can work on loads of different levels. It  might imply that the other person hasn't explained themselves very well or perhaps they're doing something a bit strange, or it makes someone very rational when the actual why could be something very emotional, or they could be in a state of tension or conflict. People do mean what they say and they do say what they mean, but that doesn't go on all the time. So you've got to be a bit more sophisticated about getting to the bottom of it.

AMIRAH: All of this is so helpful and will really be useful for brands looking to make a start on research in-house. But companies often hire market research consultants or agencies to handle this kind of qualitative research. What can those kinds of experts help with?

LUCY: Guiding a conversation so that you draw the best out of somebody comes with a lot of experience and training, and it's not something that you can necessarily muddle along with or breeze through. Finally, off the back of great moderation, you need to have really sound analysis. You need somebody who's got time and, ideally, the training to be able to understand the data that's been generated, and to do something with it that is both meaningful and actionable. You don't just want a ton of repertoires. 

Oftentimes in qualitative research, people can contradict themselves, or there's a lot that's left unsaid, especially if they're uncomfortable about something or not that experienced. People hate admitting what they don't know or haven't understood, or aren't good at. A trained qual researcher in the analysis will tease all that stuff out to make the right comparisons and probably draw on a lot of other experience from other categories, and maybe even other disciplines. You can get quite far in-house if you're not too ambitious about the scope, but I would consider whether you have the time, availability and the skill set internally to get the most out of the data that you generate, or if it really is best to leave that in the hands of someone a bit more expert.

AMIRAH: So, we've heard from Lucy about what the best practice around qualitative user research looks like. Now we're going to hear how a couple of brands actually used user research to inform their product insights. Here's Katy Marshall, VP and general manager of Pattern, an early-stage direct-to-consumer company with a portfolio of home goods brands. Katy is going to take us through how Pattern used user research to develop products for its new cookware range, Equal Parts.

KATY MARSHALL: Our brand development process typically starts with looking at the broad categories in the market that we're interested in. We have a thesis around the home and the fact that millennials, as we grow and mature and start to settle down, are spending more time at home. That was actually a thesis we had that predated Covid, but certainly has become even more true through Covid. 

Based on those categories and hypotheses, we then go and we do a lot of qualitative research, speaking to folks about those categories, understanding how people are working with them, paying attention to the pain points that folks are experiencing. Then we start to develop hypotheses for the types of solutions or products or services that we could bring to market around our top hypotheses. We bring those back to consumers and do a quick round of testing to understand how much appeal there is in the market for those ideas. From there, we really start to build product briefs and go into the actual product development and brand development process for the lead idea.

AMIRAH: So what does qualitative research look like at Equal Parts?

KATY: Typically, we'll start with a combination of focus groups and one-on-one interviews. I'm a big believer in observed research versus self reported. I'd always rather look at what people are doing versus what they say they're going to do. We all say we're going to do lots of things that we don't necessarily do in practice, right? I say I'm going to work out five days a week, and sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn't. Pre Covid, we would do a lot of ethnography, which involves actually going into people's homes, watching them cook, watching them organise a room.

DUNCAN: Ethnographic research is all about observing and studying people in their real-life environment, like their home.

KATY: Through Covid, we've done some of those digitally, where we'll have folks take videos of them cooking a meal to send to us. We can see where they're organising all of their cookware, which tools they're using the most and get that unfiltered view without having to be there in person.

AMIRAH: How do you find people to interview or have focus groups with?

KATY: We start by finding second-order connections, so looking for friends of friends, or people who maybe aren't as close to what Pattern is, the work that we're doing, that probably aren't aware or don't have any personal relationship to me. That way, there's no confirmation bias where they're just trying to validate my ideas.

DUNCAN: Confirmation bias is when people give more weight to evidence that supports pre-existing beliefs or values.

KATY: They're really objective and new to the process. Those folks are great because they're typically easy to source. You just need to find a couple of close connections who can point you in the right direction, and they're free. 

AMIRAH: Any tips for asking the right questions, or what kinds of things to look out for when observing?

KATY: It's always helpful whenever you're going into research to have a set of hypotheses that you're validating against. That way, you are already focused on a set of questions or assumptions that you're looking for. As I'm watching people, I take a lot of notes. I try to ask open questions versus closed questions. Instead of saying: are there any pain points in the cooking process? That's a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. People can easily say, 'Oh, no, it's generally fine,' but then that doesn't leave you with a lot of opportunities to drill down as an interviewer. 

Alternatively, if you ask: what are the things that could be better about cooking dinner at home? Then you're opening up the respondent's head to discussing all of the different things that do bother them about cooking at home, and you're leading them down the path to open up. It's a very subtle wording shift, but I've found that it makes a big difference.

AMIRAH: Can you give an example of how some user research that you did influenced the product that you ended up creating?

KATY: We developed the new cookware through Covid. We did one or two rounds of early focus groups, and in-person sessions in January, February, and then everything shifted fully online. One thing we learned: we did video interviews with probably a dozen second-order friends of friends and asked them to cook a meal in their apartment and video it for us. One thing we noticed was that almost all of them stored one piece of cookware on their countertop before they were even cooking a meal. It was common for them to leave something on top of the stove. 

There are really two reasons for that. The first was that apartments are small, and storage is a real sticking point for a lot of us. Having a big dutch oven or a big pot takes up a lot of real estate. The second is that, for people who had invested in nice cookware, they really wanted that cookware to be something that was also on display. It was considered part of their decor, it could be a status piece, and something that also could open up conversation with friends. That was something that we took away very early in the design process, the idea that this cookware really needs to be something that not only does the job well, but can also live beautifully and can be something that someone is proud to display on a countertop. It's something that we now know our customers are going to be looking for in making their purchase.

AMIRAH: How do you know when to use insights from user research and when to rely on your gut instincts, instead?

KATY: Sometimes in user research, we conflate customers' needs, the outcomes that they're looking for and the solutions to solve them. This is why it's very important to understand how customers are behaving, what's missing, what are the areas that they're not as satisfied with in whatever category or behaviour you're observing. 

Where you have to put the pencil down on the research is when customers veer into the territory of starting to identify solutions, because that's really where you come into play. They're constrained by what's obvious in the world around them, and they're not typically trained marketers or trained innovators. It's important to understand their needs, understand their pain points and areas of opportunity, and then put the pencil down and go back to the drawing board and ask: what could be all of the possible solutions against that? That work is actually probably not customer-facing work, it's primarily internal work, where you're ideating and pushing the boundaries of what's imaginable. 

AMIRAH: Finally, how do you weigh up qualitative research methods against quantitative ones?

KATY: They have their roles to play at different stages of the process. Qualitative is extremely valuable to open things up and explore, especially at the beginning of a process. It's always helpful to start with qual – that's really where you can get the true behavioural insights into how people act, how they feel, what are their workarounds in a process? 

Quant is really helpful once you're in a process already with a set of hypotheses, to get significant levels of validation against insight. If you go through qual, and if we take our example about design-focused cookware, we see that people are displaying your cookware on a counter and that it has to look really beautiful. Then, we'll have to go and design against that. 

Suddenly, I’ll have four or five options that come out of that design process, and that’s what I will put into quant in order to get a significant perspective with a real and reasonable sample of people as to which of those options is preferred. That gives me much more confidence in my solution versus just going back and asking five people. That's where I like to use quant – once you've opened things up with quant and you're honing in on solutions, to then get rigour and data behind those solutions in order to give confidence in our decision-making. I also like it for things like pricing, where you're looking to get a discreet answer with reasonable confidence. Quant is always more helpful for that. But a robust research process always has a variety of both.

AMIRAH: Now, here's Ben Witte, founder of wellness and lifestyle brand Recess. Recess' first product is a line of flavoured sparkling water infused with CBD. Ben didn't do any formal focus groups to support the development process; the product is really rooted in observations about a need that can be met. Recess uses social engagement data to understand what's resonating with its customers. 

BEN WITTE: I came up with the idea for Recess three years ago. I'd seen CBD oil bubbling up on the periphery, as well as other kinds of compounds that help you relax and feel calm, and had the insight that they would serve as the base of a new category of products focused on helping people relax; as opposed to caffeine, which helps people feel stimulated, and alcohol, which helps people feel intoxicated. I really think there's a new massive category of products and experiences that consumers are going to use to optimise their mentality.

AMIRAH: What kinds of observations led you to that hunch or key insight?

BEN: I'd say it was mostly looking at the world and asking ‘why’ a lot, not asking people. What I observed was that when new categories emerge, they're typically correlated to something broader happening in society. They are a reflection of the zeitgeist of that time. The rise of energy drinks and coffee over the past 20 years was really a reflection of this growth-at-all-costs mentality; the rise of plant-based meat and dairy is a reflection of environmentalism, and people caring about the world and the Earth and making sure that the products that they consume are sustainable. What I think CBD is a reflection of is people's inability to deal with the transformational times that we're living in.

AMIRAH: So what was the solution you developed that problem, or the need that you identified?

BEN: The early part of Recess has really been focused, at least up until now, on creating a new usage occasion in people's lives that they didn't know they needed. Taking a Recess means taking a moment throughout your day to reset and rebalance so you can be your most productive and creative self. Defining the feeling calm, cool, collected, not tired, not wired is really an antidote to modern times. It's how you wish the two o'clock coffee made you feel. People need to understand where your brand fits into their life and what they're supposed to feel.

AMIRAH: How are you able to tell that your idea landed and your brand really resonates with people the way you want it to?

BEN: Where we get all of our insights from is in how our community is using the product and their connection to the brand through our content. What do we want someone to feel when they drink Recess? It's thoughtful, it's clever, it's creative, it's introspective, it's inspired and so we want our content to reflect that, too. We determine if that's working through its engagement, and that's not just in likes, but I think shares are actually the most important. Our posts get shared hundreds of times, sometimes thousands of times. With our Instagram content, for example, the most important metric we track is how often a post is getting shared and saved, because that's really a reflection of its value. 

AMIRAH: Are there any examples of how social engagement data has helped inform your business?

BEN: Where I get all of our consumer insights is through Instagram and seeing how people share Recess. People share Recess a lot. The thing I saw early on is the number of usage occasions that people were using the product throughout the day. There's a large group of people that drink it in the evenings instead of alcohol, then there's also a large group of people that drink it during the day while they're working, to focus. A lot of people drink it before bed, whereas others drink it right when they get up in the morning to start their days off calm. I didn't even consider that. No one's going to drink coffee or an energy drink before they go to bed, right? That's very much a single defined use case, but with Recess, it's all of the above. That's an interesting thing and it probably means the addressable market is huge. 

DUNCAN: The total addressable market is a calculation that shows the maximum potential size of the market for a product or service, if there were no other competitors and everyone in the market could be reached.

BEN: Your total addressable market for a CPG brand is really a function of the usage occasions in the day. What are the times and points of distribution that make the most sense for it to be sold? I just thought about how there are a lot of different forms of taking Recess already happening with this one product, so there's a lot more we can make in the future. 

AMIRAH: Thanks so much to Lucy, Katy and Ben for their incredible insight. For more tips on conducting user research, head to for our step-by-step guide. And now here's Duncan to summarise key takeaways from today's show.

DUNCAN: 1) Qualitative research and quantitative research both have a role to play in product development. Usually, it makes sense to start with qualitative research to explore ideas and then use quantitative research later on to test reactions. 

2) When it comes to qualitative, observational research is incredibly valuable. See if you can watch people using a product or doing an activity, so you can get an unbiased view of what they do. 

3) It's important to invest time into developing a thoughtful research process so you're set up to make the most of any insights you might uncover. 

That's it for today. If you do have any ideas or feedback for us, get in touch at [email protected]

AMIRAH: That's it for today. If you have any ideas of feedback for us get in touch at [email protected]. We're back in two weeks. See you then.

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