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Why companies fail to act on their user research

Why companies fail to act on their customer research?

In the last post, we covered the question, how much you should invest in customer research. This is a follow up post. We will cover the question, why companies fail to act on the knowledge they gained in customer research. Because quite often, when companies do user research, they fail to act on it afterwards. So let’s try to understand, why this happens and how it can be avoided.

The classic situation for this is:

  • The company realizes, that they have problem
  • Usually it is, that their product doesn’t perform in a way they want it to
  • They realize, that they need to understand their customers better to fix the problem
  • So they invest and do customer research
  • They get results and know, how to fix their product, sales and marketing
  • But they don’t act on the results

Why do companies fail to act on their customer research?

I should say, that fail is a pretty hard word. Failure comes in mostly two forms: Not knowing what to do. And not doing what you know you should do. So this rather strange behavior is actually rather common. Just think of people that research how their nutrition should look like. And then they eat mostly the same. I myself have a great book with everyday workout plans. I also have a yoga app. I currently do neither workout nor yoga, though I should.

When it comes to the business context, I see seven special elements to why this is happening:

  1. Lack of responsibility
  2. Lack of authority
  3. Lack of budget
  4. Lack of clarity
  5. Lack of openness
  6. Lack of skill
  7. Optimization culture

Many of these are connected, but it helps to look at them in separation. So let’s do this.

Lack of responsibility

You did the customer research and now it is time to build on the results. After the research project should be an implementation project. Maybe you didn’t plan one. This is in general fine, at least for the details. How could you plan a project before you know what to do? But after you understand your customers, your to-do’s are usually not what you thought they would be. You could have started with the goal of improving marketing. But in the research you learned that you need to improve the product or customer service. So the marketing person that started the research can’t do the implementation project. And the product person maybe doesn’t care, because it wasn’t their research after all. No project gets done unless the right person wants it to get done. 

My sailing teacher always said: If you say, that something should be done, say who. Else no one will do it. Lack of responsibility often comes from a dispersion of responsibility.

Lack of authority

Similar to lack of responsibility, you might have someone who feels responsible. He would do the necessary steps, but can’t do it alone. He may not get the support from management or can’t access relevant resources. This is often the case, when the person with the problem has low decision power. They got the allowance for doing a customer research project but not for the follow-up. Then you need to convince your boss.

Lack of budget

Sometimes there is the misconception that knowing the solution is the solution. Not explicitly of course, but still there. Customer research invest should be at least a certain percentage of your development budget. The reverse is true as well. Projects, where there is no follow-up budget planned have low chances of success. Once again, I totally get, why this happens. When you do customer research for the first time it sometimes feels expensive. You don’t know how much value it will bring you. So it may be hard to see that you only get the direction and not the travel. That after a customer research is done, you still need to do the things. That customer research may be the cheaper part of the project. But still you need to budget for the travel and not just for the map.

Lack of clarity

I will dedicate a whole article to this later due to the complexity, but here is the basic story. Good customer research is hypothesis forming. This means that you go into the research without a solution in mind. Everything is in the air. You learn about the customer. Not about the customer in relation to your product. Our customers usually do have a product or at least a product idea. Yet the result of the research may be that the product doesn’t fit the job to be done. You may find out, that the change you have to make is rather big. At least if you want to get the full benefit.

If there isn’t enough clarity about this upfront, customers are sometimes unprepared. And if they are reluctant to change a lot, they may change nothing. And if this happens it is most of the time a failure of the company that did the research.

Lack of openness

It is kind of the same problem but from the other side. Lack of clarity means that the research team failed to prepare the customer for the change. They haven’t been clear on what will and will not be the result of the research. And how the follow ups may look like. Lack of openness means, that the customer didn’t want to learn something anyway. Companies often do customer research to confirm what they already believe. As a research company they are to be rejected as customers. Here is a more detailed article on the confirming research bias.

Lack of skill

For many companies, innovation isn’t their everyday business. They may not have dedicated people to reinvent things. Nor do they have processes or systems in place. They may reinvent their traditional product for the first time in years. And so they hire help. But then, once the research is done, they try to implement it. And as they are not skilled in it, they fail. Most companies don’t know how to do good user research. And most companies don’t know, how to implement innovation. The individuals tasked with the implementation may simple not know how to do it. They know what to do, thanks to the research. You may have the boat, the map, the destination and the crew. But if you can’t sail you wont get there.

Optimization culture

This is a nice description for: The culture is unable to support innovation. The long version is, that in business you have exploration and exploitation. Exploration is for finding new ways. Exploitation is for going them as fast and efficient as possible. Every business needs both. But some have only one. If you have only exploration you will find amazing solutions to difficult problems. But you won’t be able to scale and turn them into money. If you have only exploitation you can milk the cash cow like no other. But when the cow is dying, you won’t know how to find a new one.

So how do I avoid this happening to me?

There is no easy fix to this. Most of it comes down to honest communication. If you want to act on your customer research understand, what it takes for this to happen. Think about what you will do with the results after the research. Plan budget and get stakeholder buy-in during the research. Openly discuss what you can expect from the research. Be honest, if it isn’t what you want from it. Don’t do customer research, just because it looks amazing. And if nothing is happening after the research sprint, ask why. And get help if needed. 

You did the customer research for a reason. Don’t let your insights go to waste.

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