Over the last few years I've been lucky enough to be involved in a number of very large customer and user research projects. Activities have ranged from field ethnography to usability testing and spanned almost everything in between. In most cases, the "big" goal of the research has been to drive a better customer experience in the online channel. Most of the time, this includes a specific request for some type of disruptive transformation or innovation.
Sadly almost all of the work that has come out of the research I'm talking about has not achieved this. Don't get me wrong - the research was not a failure. In all cases we learned a lot about the customers/users in question and how to make things better for them. The user experiences that came out of this research are very good; in one case, Forrester called out one of them as best practices within that industry vertical.
I've still been troubled at how so much research effort could result in some much "better sameness". How did we collectively miss the mark? The first clue came from the realization that the research in question was producing facts instead of insights. The second clue was that we were getting a lot of agreement from our clients when we were presenting our initial findings - they already knew this stuff and were comfortable with it! Nobody was uncomfortable with what we were learning - there was nothing new.
Essentially, we were validating what we already knew to be true, and the user experiences ended up improving on sameness. This isn't a bad thing, but we all know that this isn't a competitive advantage, and certainly not a sustainable one.
Where I work, one of our internal goals is to ensure that all of our business thinking is driven by unique and relevant insights about our clients' customers and businesses. Generating real game-changing insights drives the processes that create transformation and innovation, and without those real "Aha" moments, we're just producing smoke. Even worse, we're telling ourselves what we already know, patting ourselves on the back, and calling it innovative or transformative.
After some reflection, I feel it all comes down to this: What is the goal of your research culture? Is it validation or inquiry? A culture of validation results in you learning more about what you already know: better sameness. A culture of inquiry results in you driving to uncover what you don't know. Inquiry is scary, dives into the unknown and is certainly not guaranteed to lead to a game-changing insight. But, it does allow for the possibility of great insights, and in this line of work, possibility is what gets us up in the morning.
Now the obvious question is, "Don't you always seek to uncover the unknown in research"? Yes, but without the conscious adherence to a culture of inquiry, it's a very subtle but slippery slope back down to validation. I see two reasons for this. The first is that most people associate research with proving (or disproving) stuff - they seem to gravitate more towards deductive thinking rather then inductive thinking as a default. I personally blame high school science class, but obviously have no basis beyond my gut instinct for this assertion. The second is that in organizations, at the middle levels, survival of the fittest is really more aptly called "survival of the most protected", and in this case, protection is information that reduces risk around decision-making. Nobody got fired for hiring IBM as the saying goes, and I also think that nobody gets fired for more validation. In cultures where people live and die by the quarterly numbers, transformative customer experiences are big risks.
What we need to help our clients and our businesses get out of this zero-sum end game is to recognize that a culture of inquiry is key to long term success, innovation and differentiation. The challenge is that the outputs of this culture will need to achieve the level of rigor and respect that is currently given to validation. No easy task, but certainly achievable. I've definitely got some stuff in the works and will hopefully be able to report back a bit later in the year on how the changes to our team culture are playing out in our client facing work. In the meantime, ask yourself which camp your organization is currently in? Are you a culture of validation, or a culture of inquiry?