An award-winning leader in the research and strategy field, Suzanne has pioneered research methodologies that have since become standard, and has helped hundreds of companies — from startups to established brands — build better products. As the founder of Explore Insights, a research consultancy, her clients have included the likes of Intuit, Nerdwallet, Shutterfly, and many more. In her past, Suzanne led the research team at Netflix. She is a regular keynote speaker at conferences focused on product development and research around the world.
In our conversation, we discuss the ways research practices have changed, the problem with many of today’s moderators, some dangerous trends she’s noticed in the research industry, and much more.
Respondent: Hi Suzanne! Welcome to Respondent’s luminary conversations. You’re widely recognized as one of the most experienced researchers working in the industry now. You’ve helmed research teams at multiple organizations — including, of course, Netflix — and have led your own successful consultancy for the past nine years. I was wondering if you could speak a little about how your experiences conducting research have changed since the beginning of your career.
Suzanne: Oh, it’s totally different. I certainly had to recruit people much differently when I started, which is why I only used research agencies. All my research was also only survey, telephone, or in-person. We just didn’t have any of the tools we have now.
Respondent: How has that affected the insights you get? Has it?
Suzanne: Definitely. I have a lot more in my toolbox, which has helped make research faster, more agile. You can also have more iterative learning. This has been really important in helping product teams not worry about designing the whole thing and instead just start getting the ideas rolling so they can build as they go.
The ability to conduct online interviews is a great example. I can see people, talk to them, they can show me things, I can show them things. There’s a lot of opportunity to having a proxy to being in person. I’ll give you an example. I did a project on home decor and I had people in a series of questions show me things around their house about their decor style. It’s amazing what you learn from just that exercise. While I couldn’t go home with them, I could get pretty close to it.
Plus, today’s technology lets me share the data input with my clients. I can give my them a recording within 10 minutes of what I did. That’s really powerful. There’s a lot of unificiation and community that happens within the company because of it.
Respondent: To ask a fundamental question then, why do you think market research is necessary to the process of good product design?
Suzanne: Because, I think, people make a lot of assumptions. When people come up with an idea and want to go full force, they often make a lot of assumptions about how other people will react to their idea. However, because we tend to surround ourselves with similar others who give lots of reinforcement, it can make us think we have a big idea. And when we don’t do research, we’ll think the whole world looks like that. So it’s important to make sure you have perspective.
— Suzanne DuFore, Explore Insights
I also think that research naturally puts a lot of discipline on what you do. You can keep new ideas moving forward, but if you get people to write out what they’re trying to do, you make them focus on specific elements like the best visual for telling a story, or how to understand labeling and the importance of lexicon, or how to position a great idea to another audience. If customers don’t understand how people will talk about their idea, they could end up throwing it away because they think it doesn’t work. In reality, they may just be talking about it wrong.
All of this is to say that, when you put the consumer at the center, you just work smarter. You truly understand the problems you’re trying to solve, you understand who you really should be talking to, and you understand what the target is. You can then come up with a way to design something that will be hard to copy, and that will have a lasting impact on the consumer.
Respondent: So would you say research acts as a way to make people slow down, to keep them from skipping over important steps?
Suzanne: I wouldn’t say it slows anyone down. It comes down to discipline, which just means you have to really think about your idea and really think about whether you can describe it, articulate its attributes, reasons to be, benefits, and so on in a very specific way. This makes you much more disciplined in how you think about your product instead of just throwing things against the wall. It saves time by making people smarter and more confident.
Respondent: Based on your observations, how do you think the quality of today’s research compares to when you started? Has it become better in the past 20 years since you began?
Suzanne: It just really depends on who is doing it. I see a lot of crappy stuff out there. There’s a lot of moderators who do qualitative research, but there’s a very small percentage who are good at it. Very small. When I was at Netflix, I had to hire people externally to come in, and there were so few whom I had a good experience with. There were some who were great at interviewing but were horrible at reporting and getting any insights, and some who were just the opposite. People will often hire moderators without knowing what their skill set is.
That’s true with survey development, too. There are so many bad surveys out there that I've seen. It’s usually when I come into a client and they’re showing me their old work. I’ll get sick to my stomach about how things were asked and how they were analyzed and the conclusions that were drawn. It’s hard for a company that doesn’t understand consumer insights to get the best results from their research.
The other problem is getting findings out into the company so that everyone is using them. A lot of companies aren’t doing it right. Instead, they let it sit on a shelf or distribute it to only five people. I insist on presenting the results, and I do that because I want people in the room who can evangelize whatever it is that we find. That’s because it’s the only time when we can be certain people are listening. If you don’t present your results and instead just share it by writing it out, most people won’t read it. And if they do, they’re probably misinterpreting most of it. I think that’s one of the biggest problems.
Respondent: I want to go back to a comment you just made, that a small percentage of qualitative moderators are good at what they do. Could you describe what seperates a good quality moderator from a bad one?
Suzanne: There’s an art to it. The best way to describe it is being able to connect with customers so that they trust you immediately. There are a lot of ways to do that. One of them is by being able to juggle what you need to know without making it look like you’re moving on to the next question. You want to have a conversation with the customer that generates insight into how to develop a product. This should be a main objective in the back of your head. Unfortunately, I think there are researchers out there whose main objective is to just finish the call or the interview and get through the material.
But the bigger problem is that a lot of people aren’t traditionally trained for qualitative interviews. I’m not saying that needs to happen, but you should understand how to move things forward. For instance, you should be saying “tell me more” instead of “why.” It feels really different and generates different feedback. If you ask why a person feels a certain way, they may feel defensive. But if you just ask them to tell you more, they’ll likely tell you more. You’re inviting them to elaborate and build rather than to justify and rationalize. You should also know the difference between telling someone “I agree,” which is not the job of a moderator, and “I hear you,” which validates their perspective.
Good moderators know how to keep moving a conversation to new levels, how to understand drivers and emotions. It’s about utilizing human nature. I always use dating as an example. If your friend told you they had a great date but just said, “It was good,” you’d probably ask them more questions: What do you mean it was good? What happened? What was he like? Describe him. We have a lot of natural curiosity, so a good moderator is able to unleash this curiosity but in a more disciplined approach.
— Suzanne DuFore, Explore Insights
Respondent: Other than poor moderators, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing quality research in the near future?
Suzanne: What I see happening in large companies right now that I think is horrible is how they are assigning and embedding researchers in only small parts of their product. For instance, there are seven researchers assigned in Facebook just to do research on Messenger. They don’t work on anything else within Facebook. Just Messenger. When you try to separate your product experience based not on the way your consumer sees it but the way you see it, you are limiting the impact that qual or any kind of research has. I think that’s a dangerous trend.
I’m not saying we need generalists, but we do need people who understand consumer insights from a macro perspective. Usability should not be a whole separate thing. For example, we need people who understand when behavioral data makes sense. Usability has become its own thing and it’s ridiculous. Some people, honestly, are just living in the tiniest part of research but are still thinking of themselves as consumer insights people. It’s terrifying to me.
Respondent: So people are becoming too specialized and are losing context?
Suzanne: It’s context. It’s skill set. It’s being reactive not proactive. It’s everything. People need to have the ability to think about and guide the product as a whole. If not, companies are doing a disservice to them. These researchers think they’re experts, but they’re really not.
Respondent: Is there anything else you’d like to see companies doing when it comes to market research? Any best practices you don’t see them following now?
Suzanne: I feel like I spend a lot of my time trying to explain to people the simplest questions, like why consumer insights are needed or who they think their target is or what their problem is. I think a lot of people assume that they understand the problem they’re trying to solve, but they don’t. As a result, you go down this weird path of creating products that don’t really solve problems that are important to people.
People need to understand they don’t know everything and often aren’t bringing in consumer insights early enough. Too often, they’re just being reactive. As a result, they end up trying to clean things up. It would have been smarter to just bring in research in the beginning.
For example, the tech world is often driven by engineering. They’re designing stuff all the time. It’s what they do. But they often forget how to talk about it, how to ask what it is they are designing. However, if they just made that small change and brought in consumer insights earlier, they would be so much more successful. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that’s down the road. They don’t think about it until they start considering usability.
— Suzanne DuFore, Explore Insights
Respondent: Sounds like you’re pushing back against the “move fast, break things” adage.
Suzanne: I’m fine with moving fast and breaking things. Agile is good, but it’s about being smart about moving forward. As long as you have the discipline to write about something and describe it, you can move super fast.
With several companies, I do design exercises where we literally take all the people — engineers, product, marketing — out to do a focus group, then come back and design all new stuff the next day. It’s fast iteration and rapid prototyping, but it is doing it in a way in which you can articulate and identify where the problems are as opposed to designing and designing but never asking what your products are supposed to be doing for people. It’s just about being more disciplined regarding how you approach design. It’s not about speed. You have to be able to articulate it. If you can’t articulate your benefits in a way that customers care about, then you have to really think about what you are designing.
Respondent: Suzanne, thank you so much for your time!
Suzanne: Thank you!