I recently finished reading Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray and I can’t stop telling people about it. None of the descriptions of this book do it justice (and neither will mine), but it’s about how people form beliefs, what happens to human interactions as a result of beliefs, and how to change beliefs (or your understanding of people’s beliefs). Like I said, this book defies description. But, it’s a quick read, so I strongly suggest you do.
As I was reading, I kept thinking about why customer research is often flawed. If you’re a researcher on a project - maybe making personas or journey maps about an audience’s experience - you’ve already done a lot of initial research, maybe talked to the client and heard their opinions, formed your own judgments, made some assumptions, and already thought of a few solutions. It’s only natural. But these are also the thoughts that will color your research, and perhaps skew it toward your preconceived notions. It is easy to interview people, write surveys, and run focus groups that are unwittingly structured to validate your own assumptions.
How do you avoid skewing your own research? Gray offers some liminal thinking practices as a solution, and I’ve identified three that I think are the most helpful.
Assume That You Are Not Objective
Gray shares a great anecdote about a boss who shoots the messenger when he hears bad news. Because the boss reacts poorly, his employees stop telling him things. After a while, the boss feels out of the loop and wants to find a way to change it. What the boss doesn’t realize is that his reactions caused this cycle - he needs to change his behavior to get his employees’ behaviors to change.
Now, imagine that you are a UX researcher and you’ve worked on a product for years. You know why things work a certain way. While you’re researching, users keep bringing up issues, but because you’re so close to the product you dismiss what they’re saying because it “had to be that way” or it’s “not in the budget.” Meanwhile, an outsider might find these insights to be the most valuable part of the research - possibly the key to designing a better product.
If you’re part of the system, you need to approach things like an outsider and assume that you are not objective.
Empty Your Cup
Emptying your cup is one way to get an outsider perspective. This means that you have to consciously suspend your judgment. Let go of any knowledge you have on the subject and forget your theories, preconceived notions, and assumptions in order to let other people’s thoughts and beliefs in. This is hard, but it is possible!
How do I do this? While I’m in a research mode, I do not let myself dwell on theories or solutions. When they inevitably come to mind, I control them by writing them down in my notebook so that I’ll have them for later. Then I block the thought out (knowing I have it noted) and continue researching.
For example, I was working on a project where I was interviewing about a dozen people who were considering an optional medical procedure. At the start of my interviews, it seemed like health insurance coverage was an enormous blocker. I jotted a solution in my notebook that said “make it easier to check insurance - maybe an online tool?” By the time I had talked to everyone on my list, I had learned that determining insurance coverage was a simple phone call that many people easily made. Those who weren’t calling the insurance company weren’t ready to commit to saying yes or no to the procedure, so they procrastinated while they thought more about it. It was a different problem (and a different solution) than the one I had identified earlier.
If I had clung to my early idea, I could’ve used my interviews to validate the idea. I bet if I asked everyone I talked to, they all would have liked an easy online insurance coverage checker. But my insurance-checker idea probably would not have changed minds or solved the bigger issue of fear and uncertainty around the procedure itself.
Triangulate and Validate
The story I just told also brings up the practice of triangulating and validating. With this, Gray encourages people to not just assume that they know what’s going on. Talk to as many people as you can, and to as many different types of people as possible. For my project, I talked to the client, to the medical office staff, and to people who were considering the procedure, in the process of having the procedure, and those who had recovered from the procedure. I read message boards and Reddit strings, online health information, and more. I tried to examine the research through a lot of different lenses so I that I could gain deeper insights.
As difficult as it is, for the best customer insights you have to let go of your own theories and stay flexible about the outcome. If you manage to do this - even just a little bit - you’ll understand your subject more, and you’ll be able to make an empathetic connection with your customers.