Introduction to Customer Research

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October 16, 2020
Thoughts by
Kelly Harrigan
Thoughts by
Tyler Hagler

An Overview of Market, Customer, and Design Research

From small startups to large well-established companies, the success of a new product is often tied to insights gained in customer research. During a recent recorded webinar session, Trig team members Ty Hagler and Kelly Harrigan gave an introductory overview of customer research and how it integrates with the product development process. If you have been curious about how and why you might involve customer research in new product development, this webinar was designed to help answer fundamental questions and identify potential pitfalls.

Why talk to the customer?

“As innovators, our job is to ask good questions of our customers and to listen to them.” - Kelly Harrigan

Talking with customers may seem like a no-brainer, but too often it is the point of failure. Past research of 101 startup failures found that the top reason for failure is that the product simply did not serve a market need. Take, for example, the integrated compressor and nail gun case study shared in the webinar, the potential customers reacted negatively to the concept because the combination of tools would likely cause more theft from a jobsite. Talking to potential customers early on saved the internal team from launching a product for which there was no market need.

The Febreze example—“almost marketing lore at this point” according to Harrigan—is a case study in how the customer can give important clues that inspire product development directions. After launching the Febreze product in the 1990s without conducting sufficient customer research, P&G experienced disappointing sales. “P&G took a lot of risk going out with a product without talking to customers first. This is, frankly, not something that a lot of companies can afford to do.” said Harrigan. Fortunately, P&G had enough resources for another attempt. In talking to one individual who did not buy the Febreze product, despite having a home with cat odor, company researchers realized that people may be accustomed to the odor of their home and not recognize any problem to solve. Meanwhile, the same company researchers interviewed a customer who happily used Febreze not to address an odor problem, but to conduct a celebratory spritz at the end of a cleaning chore. The Febreze product pivoted on that cleaning ritual spritz—redesigning and relaunching Febreze which led to a rapid increase in sales.

When do companies conduct customer research?

Two contrasting philosophies and workflows are commonly followed by product companies - described by the Inside-Out vs Outside-In Framework

Inside-Out vs Outside-In Framework

Inside-Out companies have their existing proprietary technology as their basis and employ a “build it and they will come” philosophy. The innovation workflow therefore begins with the technology and operations team. Feedback from customer research may lead to tweaks in the existing technology to better meet the customer needs. This type of company typically experiences incremental innovation to their product as this starts with solutions, then seeks out problems to solve. If customer problems are already well known to the company from existing sales with existing customers, then the R&D team can successfully lead an Inside-Out innovation process.

Outside-In companies, in contrast to Inside-Out, initiate with customer research and seek to have proprietary customer knowledge. How do you know if you have proprietary customer knowledge? Harrigan defines it as unique customer insights that “inspire a fresh perspective for your team to creatively address the problem and provide a competitive advantage when challenging the marketplace status quo.” The innovation process begins with customer research, which then drives technology and operations. This process is more likely to result in disruptive solutions rather than incremental improvements as the Marketing team discovers new customer segments with large unaddressed problems.

Engagement with customers can happen multiple times throughout a product development process. Past research has found that the strongest correlation with new product success is “specifically the early and late stages of the new product development process” (Gruner and Homburg, 2000). At the early stage, engagement with the customer can clearly hone in on what are true unmet needs and identify promising concepts to meet those needs. In the late stages, customer engagement can offer refinement to the product details and commercialization materials.

Harrigan outlined parallels between the scientific research method and design research. To illustrate this, we examined a recent bicycle light design project, to note these parallels.

Table: Parallels between the scientific method and design research

Scientific methodOutside-In Innovation BrightLoc Example
Step 1Ask a questionAsk a question (informed by marketing)How could we improve the safety of cyclists, their bikes and related accessories?
Step 2Make observations / do background researchGather clues / do discovery researchObserve bicyclists, take photographs of bikes and how they were locked
Step 3Form a hypothesisForm an insightInterview statements: "I wish there was a high-quality light that provided wide visibility when I'm biking and couldn't be stolen while I'm inside the office."
Step 4Make a prediction based on the hypothesisIdea concepts based on the insightConcept sketches, storyboard, prototypes
Step 5Test the predictionTest conceptsInterviews, surveys
Step 6Analyze results and draw conclusionsAnalyze results and draw conclusions to inform R&DSelection of most promising concept for further refinement

What are the failure points of customer research?

“A customer research project does you no good if the company does not make a change. The discovery of insights should be for the purpose of learning something new so that you can make a change.” - Ty Hagler

Poorly designed customer research can lead to a false sense of security or misinform product development decisions. Understanding your product development phase is a key starting place. Harrigan and Hagler outlined these common phases of product development and accompanying research: 

  • Exploratory research - the purpose is to uncover problems and identify unmet needs. This phase has the broadest scope of data collection.
  • Strategic research - this phase seeks to deepen the understanding of customer needs and behaviors, inspiring strategies to solve a particular problem.
  • Tactical research - this phase measures the ability of different candidate solutions to solve a particular problem.

For each phase of research, having a representative sample of customers will lead to more accurate results. Selecting the most appropriate research method such as qualitative vs quantitative couples with the sample size. Depending on the research objectives, in-depth interviews with a select number of representative customers or surveys of a larger panel of potential customers, or both, may provide the needed insights. For related articles on this topic, check out:

How Do You Design a Survey to Support Product Development?

What is Concept Validation Testing?

When designing the research study, the insights will be most valuable if you stay neutral and avoid inadvertently putting your thumb on the scale of a favorite product direction. Having a baseline for comparison - such as a competitor product on the market - will increase your confidence in the potential viability of a new product concept. 
Avoid throwing research over the wall,” said Harrigan, noting how the transfer of insights between a customer research team to the product design team may lead to a decrease in the impact of the research. Integrating design team members into the customer research process, and vice versa, supports the creation of brilliant solutions that meet true needs.


Gruner, K.E; Homburg, C., 2000. Does Customer Interaction Enhance New Product Success? Journal of Business Research.

Kelly Harrigan
Senior Design Strategist

Kelly Harrigan is an explorer in both her professional and personal life. Natural curiosity about the world fuels her to uncover the physical, cultural, and environmental forces that shape people’s lives. Connecting the seemingly unrelated dots to inspire new product opportunities is Kelly's sweet spot. While she's comfortable living in the fuzzy front-end, she strives to help others push their creativity threshold as well. At Trig, Kelly is responsible for leading customer research studies, organizing and facilitating ideation sessions, as well as pioneering brand new services with trend research and trend field trips.

Tyler Hagler

As a career industrial designer and innovation practitioner, Ty Hagler has managed hundreds of new product development programs through the process of opportunity identification guided to commercialization.


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