Conventional qualitative and quantitative research provides an excellent foundation for understanding consumer needs, but it’s also important to more viscerally understand what’s going on in consumers’ lives, how your products or services could work to help them live better, and what really drives their decisions to buy.

If you work at a large organization you may have anthropologists on staff, or you may engage outside firms to conduct ethnographic research, as in this excellent Atlantic article. And if you can observe these experts in action, that’s ideal.

But there’s also value in doing it yourself, practicing on “friends and family” who use your product or service. The better you understand your customers’ problems and aspirations, not only on an analytical level but on a gut level, the better your innovations will be.

Come on in, the water’s warm

I’m the first to admit, it’s hard to clear my calendar to actually spend quality time with customers.

But every time I do I learn something I never expected. And I come back inspired with fresh inspirations.

The idea is to observe, listen and understand as much as possible. Avoid the temptation to “help” (at least not initially). Take notes and ask open-ended questions to understand customers’ jobs, pains and gains.

3 DIY immersion Ideas

Here are 3 simple DIY immersion ideas to consider.

1. Go to where your consumers live (literally).

In the case of fashion, you might ask people to show you their closets to better understand how you could meet more of their wardrobe needs.

Examples of questions: What are their go-to outfits, and why? What haven’t they worn in five years, and why are they keeping it? What’s missing from their closet, and why?

In the case of food, you might ask people to show you their kitchens to understand the role various products play in their lives. What’s in their pantries and their refrigerators? How did it get there? What occasion is it for? Who prepares this? Who eats this? Why is this out of date item still here?

2. “Shop along” with your consumers.

It’s fascinating to go shopping with your customers to understand what makes their shopping experience enjoyable and productive (or not).

If you’re a retailer, for example, you might investigate questions like: Where in your store do your customers go? What path do they follow? What do they pick up or avoid? How long do they spend in the store? What do they buy, or not buy? You can also ask them to give voice to their inner monologue as they shop.

If you’re a manufacturer, you might investigate questions like: Did they actually see your product on the shelf? Did they consider your product or not? What else did they consider? How did they decide?

3. Ask your customers to show you exactly how they use your product or service.

If you’re selling auto accessories, you might ride along with your customers for a day.

If you’re selling software as a service, you might join them at their mobile phone, tablet or computer to watch them go about their business using your service.

For online shopping sites you can conduct “surfalongs.”

What tasks do they need to accomplish? Where do they run into problems? What do they gain by completing their task? What solutions do they use today and how well do they work? How can you help?

When to conduct customer immersions

If your quality or satisfaction ratings are slipping, you sense your customer experience isn’t resonating, or your customer base is changing, or you just want to refresh your understanding, these are ideal times to use a DIY customer immersion (and perhaps engage an outside expert).

Inquiries can also be undertaken when you want to refocus your team on the consumer. If you are in a business that regularly refreshes its products or services, you can time this activity to fit your product development process. You can also integrate this practice into your annual planning.

I can’t wait to hear what fresh innovations this inspires.

This post was originally published by the American Marketing Executive Circle.

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