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The Incredibly Simple Power of Thinking Out Loud

There's what potential customers tell you they want, and what they actually want. Asking them to think out loud is one way to get to the bottom of it.
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When Xerox’s legendary PARC team conducts customer research, they rely on classic ethnographic techniques of researching how and why people behave the way they do.

One technique is the "Think-Aloud Protocol." As opposed to surveying potential customers after they've tried a product or service, protocols like this attempt to learn what customers are thinking in real-time, in their own words, as they use (or struggle to use) a product. "We ask questions as people go about their usual activities so we can understand context that may not be obvious," writes PARC's James Glasnapp in a recent post on the PARC site

Here are two think-out-loud techniques you can use to research your own prospective customers: 

1. Ask them to demonstrate what they're describing, and to describe what they're demonstrating. "We ask study informants to fully explain what they are doing and thinking as they do it, so that we can better understand their objectives, thought processes, and decision-making processes," writes Glasnapp. 

The point is to not let verbiage muddle a clear understanding of behaviors. Likewise, in hearing customers speak, you might learn how they verbalize a process or an action. That knowledge can improve your marketing materials and instruction guides.

Just remember: You don't want to ask too many questions. If you do, you might make your subjects a little too conscious of their behaviors. "While we do this sparingly to avoid burdening study informants, we are always balancing the need to observe undisrupted behaviors with the need to understand what we are observing," notes Glasnapp.

There are many examples of companies who've used these techniques. Intuit founder Scott Cook famously pioneered the Follow Me Home program. Intuit employees actually followed customers home, to learn how they installed and used and struggled with early versions of QuickBooks. In the early 2000s, Procter & Gamble used firsthand observations of how consumers in India washed their clothes to research the best way to introduce Tide into the market.

These techniques were also demonstrated to a tee by America's most famous ethnographers: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. As you probably remember from history class, they led an expeditionary group whose 1803 endeavor, as envisioned by the then-POTUS Thomas Jefferson, was to explore the western part of the United States.

Whenever possible, the expedition participated in hunts, games, and ceremonies. John Ordway, the sergeant major, once tried to play a game involving hoops and poles, but couldn't understand the rules. But the point is, he tried to play. The analogy here is that you want to ride alongside customers in the Mustang--as Ford's ethnographers have done--or watch them as they install their software, like Intuit did. You don't only want to interview them later about it, useful though that may be. 

2. Pursue the information through casual chatting, rather than formal interviewing. "For us, the exploration plays out much like a conversation," writes Glasnapp. "Answers tend to come out naturally, we may vary the order of the questions, and we can allow tangents if worthwhile. This flexibility (as opposed to sticking to a templated script) makes more probable unexpected discoveries and really getting what people care about."

One entrepreneur who recently benefited from this conversational technique is Dave Vockell, founder and CEO of the software company Lyfechannel. Vockell performed his customer research by speaking to senior citizens at a local International House of Pancakes restaurant (aka IHOP). Specifically, 43 seniors told him that they were unlikely to comparison-shop for doctors based on price--but they wouldn't mind knowing the information, for the sake of negotiation. 

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you don't need to be a professional ethnographer like Glasnapp to use these techniques. Even Lewis and Clark, for example, "made no pretense at being scientific observers," notes historian James P. Ronda, Barnard Professor of West American History at the University of Tulsa, in Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. "As valuable as they are, their ethnographic records are imperfect, incomplete pieces of evidence."

But the key, writes Ronda, is that "their cultural biases did not prevent them from asking the right ethnographic questions."

Just as important, they made sure to record every answer, no matter how confusing it seemed to them at the time. If you do that, you'll be well on your way to learning more about how your customers truly think and feel. And maybe you'll even get to eat a few flapjacks in the process. 




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