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Using Qualitative Research to Inform a Customer-Centric Design

Chapter Description

This chapter from Refining Design for Business: Using analytics, marketing, and technology to inform customer-centric design discusses several types of qualitative research and shows how they can be used to generate test ideas while providing insights that will help guide the business in an evolving marketplace.

Take a Step Back

Although qualitative research is a key part of the ongoing design process, it can also play an invaluable role in helping to shape a company’s overall direction. Grounded in the customer perspective, qualitative research helps businesspeople to shape long-term strategies by keeping their finger on the pulse of an evolving marketplace, a practice that helps them develop better ways of fulfilling their customers’ needs in the present and in the future.

As businesspeople focus on the day-to-day activities related to delivering the same products and services, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term customer needs that are driving the demand for those same products—a phenomenon renowned marketing savant Theodore Levitt called “marketing myopia.” Levitt argued that these companies tend to be “product-oriented instead of customer-oriented,” and view their “marketing effort” as a “necessary consequence of the product, not vice versa, as it should be.”

He cited the example of railroad companies: Once the titans of industry, they had fallen on hard times by the 1960s, all because they thought of themselves as being in the business of “railroads.” Had they instead seen themselves as being in the business of “transportation,” they would have begun to produce cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones—an expansion they were well positioned to tackle, given their extensive resources.

Levitt may have been writing in the 1960s, but his observations remain true: All too often, businesses focus on current successes instead of prioritizing their customers’ present—and future—needs. In recent years, however, some companies have grown to recognize the importance of building for the future; a few examples of well-developed marketing strategies, or long-term game plans for providing customer value, appear in Table 4.1.

Table 4.1 Online Marketing Strategies


Online Marketing Strategy

Ally Bank

“We help our customers to achieve their savings goals.” (Andrew Switzer)


“Comcast helps our customers to enrich their lives through entertainment and technology.” (John Williamson)


“We help our customers to make the most out of where they are.” (Simon Favreau-Lessard)


“IBM helps enable our customers to do their jobs better.” (Phil Corbett)


“We help our customers to connect with new opportunities.” (Amy Parnell)


“PetCareRx helps to bring health and happiness to pet owners and their pets.” (Blake Brossman)

Saks Fifth Avenue

“Our strategy is to inspire customer confidence and style with every Saks shopping experience.” (Roger Scholl and Matt Curtis)


“We help our customers to find health information.” (Rob Blakeley)

Each strategy conveys a straightforward understanding of why customers come to the business for help that goes beyond the current core product and service offerings. For example, Comcast’s strategy to focus on entertainment and technology doesn’t keep the company tied to current revenue sources, such as cable lines or set-top boxes, because these will likely be short-lived due to rapidly evolving technology; indeed, Comcast has expanded its product offerings to allow customers to watch movies and television shows from mobile devices even when offline. Similarly, IBM’s online strategy is focused on work-related tasks for business customers; as such, IBM has expanded its services into cloud computing, “big data,” and social technologies.

All these examples illustrate the importance of preparing a pathway for the future—a journey that, in many cases, begins with asking solid qualitative-research questions and paying close attention to the answers.