The Importance of Understanding People

In the film Field of Dreams the central character, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) builds a baseball field on his struggling farm because he hears a voice telling him "If you build it, he will come”. Of course Hollywood being Hollywood, it turns out that the ‘he’ is Ray’s deceased father and he does indeed come, bringing with him eight deceased baseball players from the 1920s who proceed to play ghostly games on the pitch. The film ends with a shot of hundreds of people driving up the road leading to the farm in order to watch a game; the inference being that they will pay for tickets and Ray’s farm will be saved - Yey! It's a heartwarming classic, but of course, in reality, it's just not true. Leaving the dead baseball players aside, there are very few startups that are successful based on instinct alone, because in real life . . .


If you just build it, people won’t come!


Successful organisations like Uber, Zappos, Apple and Amazon are design lead which means they all have at least one thing in common  - a true understanding of the people who will ultimately use their services or products. They don't fall into the ‘field of dreams trap’ that many established organisations fall into because:

  • They think they know what their customers want, because they are their customers after all;

  • They’ve hit lucky in the past, so why the need to spend time and money on research now;

  • They’ve been in the market for many years so they must be doing something right, why change;

  • They don't think they have time for research because they are too busy serving customers, that is their business after all.


 I know that in the public and social sector there is a great deal of discussion around whether we should refer to the people who receive our services and use our products as ‘customers’. I guess it does reinforce a transactional hierarchy which isn't always helpful and can act as a blocker. But to be honest I quite like thinking of people as customers because it helps us go the extra mile to please them. The truth is, whether we think of people as customers, end users or clients, organisations can no longer afford not to understand more about them. Design research is a risk mitigation and cost saving tool. When we have an idea for a new service or product, dedicating time upfront to understand problems from a customer perspective saves both time and money later on, by both reducing needless developments and the need to go back and make changes to something that ultimately doesn’t work or more critically, people just don’t need or want.

The power of customer insight comes in the tools we borrow from the social sciences, in particular interview techniques based around the field of ethnography. Ethnography immerses researchers in people’s lives and provides a rich source of information that helps to unlock unarticulated needs, because often what people don’t say is as powerful as what they do. By observing behaviour within the context of everyday life, it is possible to start to construct real-life stories that put a human face on the research and move us beyond presumption, stereotypes and statistics - helping us understand that what people say they do (or will do) and what they actually do, is often very different.  Using ethnography we can start to tell their story, a story of . . .


 Real People | Real Problems | Real Experiences


We use different tools depending on what we want to understand.  Tools which include:


  • Short interviews - Usually conducted on the doorstep or in the street in order to ask some quick questions around a specific topic;

  • Long or contextual interviews - Usually conducted in the place where the service or product will be received or used, allowing interviewers to observe behaviour and dynamically guide the direction of conversation accordingly;

  • Shadowing - Comprised of non interactive observation of activity and behaviours;

  • Relationship mapping  - Usually part of a contextual interview, templates are used to in order to provide insight into who people interact with and how important those relationships are to them;

  • Journey mapping  - Usually comprised of insights gathered from interviews and observation in order to highlight how people experience a service or product.


Being objective and empathetic is an essential skill for those conducting interviews. Customer interviews aren't about defending a corporate position, they are about listening to what people say whilst remaining impartial. Often the richest insights come about when participants feel that they can be open and honest with the interviewer. Essentially design research is about having a conversation with people which is structured by a topic guide, but also leaves space to understand people in a wider context than the proposed service or product. An online survey might provide a reasonable overview, but following a strict set of questions in a customer interview is restrictive and limits conversation and the ability to build rapport. I have often seen this born out by the people I have worked alongside. I once worked with a Social Worker who told me . . .


“I learned more about them in two hours of conversation than two years of assessments”


I spent a day recently in Lichfield with three members of the Coop digital team, interviewing Bromford residents in order to provide insight to inform early stage development of a new service they are looking to develop. We spoke to around a dozen residents, conducting doorstep, short interviews to help us quickly understand if people identified with the service offer and whether they would buy-in. I think it is fair to say that we learned quite a bit about how to communicate the offer, why people would or wouldn’t find value in the proposition and we had some of our assumptions challenged - which was a great outcome.

People who are used to large scale surveys often argue that using ethnographic techniques to gather customer insight doesn’t provide a representative sample. But large representative surveys can themselves only tell us so much.


Surveys can can tell you how many, but often not why.


This is where the rich insights from ethnography come in. Sample size really shouldn't matter. Design lead startups don't worry about understanding every type of end user before they release their product. They get on and do it, but they do it with insight. As the service or product gains traction, they add to their knowledge and make adjustments inline with the insights they gather. Researching in this way sometimes feels dangerous or superficial to people who aren't used to doing it. But we need to remember that at it’s core, ethnography provides insights derived from real people. Couple this with desktop analysis and representative survey data, and you have a robust portfolio of evidence to support the design of a new service or product.

An ethnographic research approach and a small number of customer interviews can provide the foundation for a quick and successful design of a minimal viable product. We often think that we know our customers, but thinking can be dangerous.


It takes humility to admit that you don't have all of the answers, and you don't know everything about your customers.


It’s amazing how much an organisation can transform the way they work by simply having different conversations with their customers.



Simon Penny, Design Lead

Service designer, passionate about using design to find innovative solutions to the most pressing social issues.