Making research a ritual, not a special occasion.
Tomer Sharon posited a fantastic question back in 2018:
"If Amazon can deliver production code every 11.6 seconds, can your company continuously deliver research - customer insights - once every 11.6 seconds?"
It’s a fantastic question not only because of the speed and scale he imagines, but the incredible value the question can unlock.
Imagine how well you could know your customers, their pain & suffering, their needs & desires, if you could generate customer insights every day or as part of every product release?
In 2018 there weren't many companies able to do continuous research, generally only those with enormous research resources - the type Tomer Sharon was leading at the time: Google, WeWork, JP Morgan. This was because back then you would require not only a large budget, but also extensive human- and machine-powered infrastructures to achieve it.
These organizations could take the 7 steps of an effective research process - Initiation, Planning, Recruiting, Data Collection, Synthesis & Analysis, Reporting, & Follow Up - and “automate” it through teams of people, lots of engineering time and sheer willpower.
Thankfully a lot has changed in the last 5 years, including research automation tools like Great Question.
What is continuous customer research?
Continuous research is interacting with customers from a research perspective on a daily, weekly or fortnightly basis. It's about making customer research a part of every product release, instead of an occasional special event.
What are the benefits of continuous customer research?
There are two main benefits for continuous research
1. Provide a release valve for questions - and customer frustrations
New questions are constantly emerging about who your customers are, what problems they have, and whether your proposed solutions will solve for them.
They often relate to deeper prioritization questions - which product should we deliver, and in what sequence?
More often than not these questions - from product managers, designers, customer support, engineers, marketers or executives - go unanswered. Or worse, the answers emerge in the form of guesses & gut instincts. The end result is you're often left flying in the dark. Or making decisions based purely on opinion.
By creating consistent avenues for conducting customer research you're opportunity for the entire team to continually ask questions of your customers, and let them better inform your decisions & prioritization.
Continuous research also provides a release valve for your customers and their frustrations, and a chance for them to inform the product roadmap.
2. Build a research-based culture, and empower your team
Continuous research creates a more inclusive research environment in two ways.
First, it increases opportunities for a broader set of customers to participate in research activities. The volume of research means you are likely to have a greater percentage of your customers participate, across a broader range of use cases.
Secondly continuous research requires your entire team to be involved - not just researchers or product managers, but designers, engineering & customer support. All of these roles can bring their unique perspective to the questions that are asked, the interpretation of the insights, and the potential solutions that could be implemented.
What are the risks of continuous research?
Continuous research isn't without its downsides.
For instance there is a risk of creating research fatigue. This most often shows up in two ways. The first is that research isn't incorporated back into the decision making process - it's performative and once completed rots away in a powerpoint presentation somewhere.
The second way that research fatigue can show up is where no decision can be made without significant customer research. Research becomes a crutch for decision making, and slows down the entire product development process instead of empowering decision makers.
Research fatigue risks can be addressed by making research a part of a ritual, and simply being aware of these risks - and discussing them in an open & honest manner.
There is also a risk that is more related to democratized research, where there may be a fear of poor research practices creeping in. This can be overcome through proper education on the correct methods, and setting up processes to reduce the risk of human error.
What are the best continuous research methods?
Virtually any research method can be done as part of a continuous research practice, though it lends itself to methods that require less setup & ongoing maintenance.
While usability studies and surveys can be used as a part of a continuous research process, they tend to require a lot more up front energy, and reduce the dynamic potential to ask the question du jour.
Customer interviews are one of the best forms of continuous research. They allow for the most open-ended questions, make it easy to inject the latest topic of enquiry into the interaction, and ultimately let the customer lead the conversation and show you how they actually use the product or service.
Customer interviews also provide one of the highest signal to noise ratios - they are far and away the best way to capture genuine customer experience of your product.
Customer interviews make it easy for anyone on your team to participate, either as a moderator, a note taker or an observer.
Customer interviews aren't always formal events either. Any customer interaction is an opportunity to solicit feedback, to ask questions, to try to understand what's going on in your customers world - whether it's a sales call, a support interaction or a webinar.
Finally customer interviews produce high quality artifacts - videos & transcripts - that help to tell a compelling story about the customer insights that the interview series generates.
What are the best opportunities to implement continuous research?
There are natural break points that create opportunities for continuous research.
Continuous research could be applied to any of your customers at any time via a random selection, but you might also integrate into any one of these moments:
- Customer lifecycle events - any chance impacting your customers
- Customer onboarding (both successful & abandoned)
- Feature usage (both users & non-users)
- Exit interviews
- Periodic research - establishing a rhythm of research
- Weekly customer councils
- Monthly usability studies
- Segment-based (regular samples across personas)
How do I make continuous research a part of my product development?
The key to successfully integrate continuous research as part of your design, product, engineering or marketing processes is to automate as much as possible.
It's human nature to get super excited about doing a new activity at the beginning, and for that enthusiasm to drift over time. That's why the gym is so empty come March 1st.
You want to remove the human element as much as possible to make continuous research the default vs the exception.
Automation should ideally happen across every step of the research process, but it's particularly important in the more challenging steps: recruitment, data collection, and reporting.
Make research a priority
Your team and organization needs to make research a priority if it's going to stick. This can be achieved in a few ways.
- Establish metrics & KPIs for your team around research
- # of interviews per week / month / quarter
- Create space for research reviews
- Either in existing meetings (like planning) or entirely new rituals
- Allocate the resources
- Who is coordinating & reporting across research activities?
- Establish a budget for research activities
Empower your team
Empowering your team is not only about making research a priority, it's about providing them with the tools & resources they need to be successful.
- Make it easy to access customers for the purposes of research
- 80% of the effort in conducting research is in recruiting the right candidates
- Educate your team on best practices
- Provide access to books, guides & training to keep them on track
- Continuously reinforce the why & the how
- Create regular opportunities to review why we're doing research, how it can be done effectively, and celebrate your wins
Recruitment can be automated by baking it into your product. This includes:
- Setting up Calendly or similar research calendar tools (like Great Question) so there's no back and forth
- Automating recurring customer interviews via customer councils
- Automated emails on signup or feature usage to schedule interviews
- In-app popups in specific flows like onboarding
- Integrating w/ exit & NPS surveys
Make it easy
Everyone collects data in their own way. Whether it's via pen & paper, or in spreadsheets or notes applications. As much as possible everyone should capture this data in the same place so it's easy to find, and the best insights can bubble up.
However given the fragmented nature you should also look for centralized tools to automate collection. Zoom is one such tool, which many organizations already use, and which can be automatically setup to record video, transcribe it and post to a central repository.
Make it visible
Automated reporting creates a regular touch point for everyone to experience the learnings from customer research. This could be in the form of a Slack channel for all scheduled interviews, or an email digest of recordings.
With Great Question we send a weekly email digest containing that includes the customer interviews for the week ahead, as well as a review of the previous week including completed interviews & surveys, as well as any stories or reports that were generated.
Continuous customer research is the foundation that great products & companies are built on, transforming research from an intermittent after thought to a central player in the product development process.
How are you doing research today? What roadblocks are you trying to overcome? I'd love to hear from you - all a part of my own continuous research activities. firstname.lastname@example.org
If you're looking for a research platform to help automate continuous research, check out our website at GreatQuestion.co.