How to Uncover Customers’ Problems

When optimizing your website, product, email program, or retail experience—think beyond A/B testing by continuously seeking new customer problems to solve.

Gartner has proven that eliminating or reducing customer effort is the best way to improve customer loyalty.

Here are 16 ways to find customer problems and incrementally improve the user experience:

1. Contextual inquiry

A contextual inquiry entails observing a user completing one or more tasks in their natural environment.

Unlike a usability test, you’re not testing anything nor giving the user tasks to complete. Additionally, you can interrupt the task anytime to ask probing questions.

Contextual inquiries are ideally conducted in person at the user’s home or work place, so that you can observe—in real-time—everything (and everyone) they interact with in order to complete a task.

A lean contextual inquiry can be conducted by video and/or screen share software.

2. Diary study

A diary study asks participants to document their behaviors and attitudes over time—whether a day, week, or a few months.

You can structure a diary study to collect the same types of data throughout, or different aspects of the user’s journey (e.g., planning a vacation, shopping for gifts, cooking a meal).

Diary formats can be any combination of written entries, photos / screen captures, and videos. You can ask participants to point their camera at themselves or the activity / object.

3. Interview (IDI)

To be considered rigorous, user interviews must follow the same set of questions (i.e., discussion guide). Follow-up questions can be improvised, but it’s critical to ask the same core questions to all participants to confidently identify patterns.

Interview 12-15 people per user segment. You may even be able to go as low as 6-8 participants to find broad themes.

In-depth interviews (IDIs) can be conducted in person (home, work, coffee shop), by phone, or video chat.

4. Workshop / Focus Group

Bring users together in an online private discussion board, a round table, or informal setting (living room) to tell stories about a recent problem they’ve encountered while using your product or completing a task.

To spark or pivot the conversation, use stimuli (e.g., emotion cards, use cases, video / images of product or service).

5. Social Listening

Regularly mine social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, discussion boards, etc.—for customer complaints.

6. Customer Service Log

When customers call or write to complain, those issues are coded and documented somewhere. Go find that list—plus the original complaints for context.

7. Text Mining

Partner with an analyst to identify common themes among archived chats, emails, and recorded phone calls. Even simple word clouds filtered by negative sentiment can be revealing.

8. Error Logs

Regularly review the error logs auto-generated by third-party systems. Filter them by geography, OS / platform, role, etc. to find patterns.

9. User Session Replay

Tools like HotJar or Tealeaf record user sessions that can be played back and watched as searchable videos. These session videos include mouse movements, scroll / swipe behaviors, and text inputs.

Some issues or errors are so rare—or undetectable through other research methods—that the only way to capture them is to record every session.

10. Frontline Employees

Your frontline employees—cashiers, sales people, tellers, call center reps, drivers—see customers’ problems up close every day.

Talk to them individually or in a focus group setting to learn what problems they regularly observe.

11. Mystery Shoppers

Send paid participants out into the world to interact with your store, amusement park, hotel, restaurant, or call center employees, and then have them report back the issues they encountered.

12. Search Logs

Mine your internal search engine results to find out what questions or topics users type into your system—that return zero or irrelevant results.

13. Keyword Research

What problems are users searching solutions for? Use Google’s Keyword Planner Tool or auto-complete search results to find common topics or questions.

14. VOC Surveys

Proactively and passively ask customers to tell you about their experiences. Ask for feedback at the bottom of receipts, at end of phone calls, follow-up emails, or as a CTA in your system.

15. Usability Study

Watch users interact with your website or product to learn what problems they uncover. Usability studies can be conducted in person or remotely, and with or without a facilitator.

16. Competitive Audit

Jakob’s Law:

“Users spend most of their time on other sites.” – Jakob Nielsen

Review competitors to discover innovative or novel ways of creating a more intuitive or more effortless experience. If there are established best practices or commonly used patterns, don’t reinvent the wheel.

In Conclusion

Regularly gather and track problems over time to demonstrate the business case for solving customer problems. Measure CES. Calculate in real dollars the lost revenue, lost profit, or lost productivity saved.

And don’t forget to close the loop! Individually or in a mass communication, thank customers for their feedback and how you’ve solved their problems.

See also: 28 Ways to Get to Know Your Customers

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Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is a CX insights leader, UX researcher, and strategist in Minneapolis. She helps organizations drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. She never misses the Minnesota State Fair and loves dark chocolate mochas, kayaking, escape rooms, and planning elaborate treasure hunts for her children.