What Your Customers Really Think

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Getting Maximum Value from Customer Research

This blog post is a collaboration between Cultivate Insights and Next Leap Design. It was a pleasure to co-author this article with Dawn Ressel and Lisa Towell, who together provide deep expertise in qualitative research with an emphasis on design thinking.



Ask any innovative organization for the secret behind their success, and you’ll hear them say, “We listen to our customers.” To build products and services that people really want, you must first understand them. What do they want? What problems do they have? How do they behave? What do they believe? How do they feel?

Customer research allows you to challenge your assumptions and answer these questions. Quantitative research, perhaps in the form of a survey and subsequent analysis, produces reliable (“statistically significant”) results. Qualitative research, such as in-depth interviews, yields deep and often surprising insights. But the most impactful results come from combining quantitative and qualitative techniques. Findings from quantitative studies can be used to guide follow-up qualitative inquiry, and vice versa. Both methodologies are essential tools for giving you the customer understanding that supports data-driven business decisions.

What is the value of quantitative research?

Quantitative research can reliably predict the attitudes or behavior of a specific population. It works by asking questions of a statistically significant group of people. A key benefit of quantitative research is the ability to identify patterns in a subset of your customer base that will apply on a larger scale.

Quantitative research involves collecting and analyzing data from surveys, experiments, and pre-existing datasets. It emphasizes the use of objective, standardized measures that can be analyzed using statistical or computational techniques.

When people hear the word “research,” they think of surveys. Well-run surveys are a valuable form of quantitative research that can be used for a wide range of purposes,from basic public opinion surveys to product usage tracking studies to understanding how customers respond to different packaging prototypes.

Most quantitative research is either descriptive or experimental. Descriptive research measures the attitudes or behavior of a population at a specific point in time, focusing on associations or correlations. A descriptive research survey might gauge interest in plant-based foods and explore how that interest differs for Millennials versus Boomers. Another example is a survey to understand which of several product innovations garners the most excitement from customers.

Descriptive research can leverage your company’s existing internal datasets (e.g., sales and marketing data) or to study an external audience. Examples of internal research include mining your existing customer database to learn as much as possible about their demographics, or using the results of online ad campaigns to see which messages work best with different audiences.

Descriptive research only shows correlation, not causation. In other words, it tells you if there is a relationship between two things, but will not tell you if one is causing the other. A descriptive survey would be an excellent way to learn if people interested in your product have other definable characteristics that could be used in marketing. However, descriptive research will not tell you if those other characteristics are causing interest in your product.

Experimental research, on the other hand, typically measures changes in attitudes or behavior due to specific stimuli, with an emphasis on causation. An experimental study could, for example, test three versions of an advertisement to see which results in the strongest intent to purchase. While experimental studies are challenging to do well, experimental data is the preferred basis for most decision-making.

Both forms of quantitative research have an important role to play when it comes to understanding consumers and increasing market share. The insights gained from surveys and other quantitative analyses can mean the difference between success and stagnation for your company. When paired with qualitative research, it’s even more powerful.

What is the value of qualitative research?

Qualitative research focuses on deeply empathizing with your customers.. This empathy helps you see the world through your customer’s eyes. In order to solve a customer’s problem, you have to first truly understand that problem from their perspective.

The in-depth interview is a common qualitative research method. Interviews help you deeply understand a person’s attitudes towards subjects you care about. Interviews must be carefully moderated to avoid bias. Always ask questions in an open-ended, non-leading way so the participant feels comfortable telling the truth from their perspective, not just saying what you want to hear.

The most important question in an interview is “Why?” You will need to ask “Why?” more than once to get a deep understanding of the root causes of how people think, feel, and behave. Usually the first answer to “Why?” will be a superficial answer, but if you continue to ask “Why?” you can get deeper into their reasoning and emotions.

Observational research in the customer’s environment is one of the most powerful qualitative research tools for understanding the real world as it relates to your product or service. It’s easy to develop a skewed perception of the importance of your product or service in the entire scheme of a person’s life. For example, if you work for an almond milk company, you may lose sight of the fact that your almond milk may be just one beverage out of a dozen in a customer’s fridge, in addition to cow’s milk. You might not realize that this customer is not loyal to your brand, but just buys whatever’s on sale. Observation helps you understand the whys behind real behaviors of your target customers.

The research methods of interviewing and observational research help you understand people’s needs, behaviors, motivations and decision-making. Qualitative customer research is critical to creating products and services that people love, which in turn, creates business growth through positive word-of-mouth and brand loyalty. The rich insights that you gain from user research will improve your business in many ways, and can be applied to product development, marketing, sales, customer support, advertising, and more.

One qualitative method that is overused is the focus group. A focus group is useful for getting feedback on an already-developed concept, but it’s less valuable for new concept creation. This is where in-depth interviews and research in context shine because they provide the insights for product development and innovation. In focus groups, the group dynamics and time pressure too often get in the way of people’s ability to dig deep. In a one-on-one setting, a skilled moderator who has built a rapport with an individual can uncover remarkable, surprising insights. Additionally, focus groups tend to be expensive and provide a lesser value for your research dollar.  

What is the value of combining quantitative and qualitative research?

The most valuable research projects combine quantitative and qualitative methods to maximize the potential for key insights. Each approach produces useful data and results that can complement and enrich the other.

It should be noted that research can be both quantitative and qualitative at the same time. For example, surveys can include open-ended questions that produce qualitative data. In-depth interviews can be conducted in sufficient numbers to produce some quantitative data (with limitations). Observational research can be qualitative and/or quantitative.

Qualitative research is often the first step when exploring new concepts. In-depth interviews and focus groups can help your company understand how consumers think and feel about a brand, product, or concept. Using these approaches to gather open-ended data helps explore a wide range of topics and discover innovative ideas.

In most cases, qualitative research should be validated with quantitative research. Because qualitative work involves fewer people (smaller sample sizes), the results may not reflect the true attitudes or behavior of the population. One way to avoid misleading qualitative data is to conduct research based on demographics you’ve already verified with quantitative research. For example, if you know your target customer is 25-39 and lives in urban centers, your qualitative research will be much more reliable. For major business decisions, it’s always a good idea to verify your qualitative results with a larger sample that can give you more confidence.

The same is true in reverse. Quantitative surveys are very useful tools to describe your audience or test different marketing options, for example. But to gain in-depth knowledge of consumer perceptions and a more nuanced understanding of their desires and preferences, qualitative research is a critical – and sometimes overlooked – component.  

Examples of combining research methods in the alternative protein space

Let’s take a look at some specific examples of how your company could use a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods in some real scenarios to get important research insights.

Branding/messaging research

Imagine you want to understand consumers’ attitudes towards plant-based meats. We would suggest starting with individual interviews with people who currently purchase plant meats. You would then analyze the data to find key motivators and benefits. Based on these insights, you would develop a handful of benefits statements about plant-based meats. Now you want to know which of these statements resonates with the most people.

To verify your qualitative findings and get a statistically significant understanding of your benefits statements, you would use a survey. For instance, you could ask people to rank order the benefits statements or evaluate each according to a few key metrics. You would then use the highest-rated benefits statements in marketing campaigns. With a sufficiently large sample size, you could also analyze which benefit messages resonate best with specific demographics. Then you could run targeted campaigns on social media or special regional campaigns in stores.

Product innovation research

Let’s say you want to develop a brand new plant-based meat offering and you want to know where the biggest market gap is. In this scenario, you might conduct qualitative and quantitative research in parallel and use the data from one to help refine the other.

First, you would do longitudinal experience sampling of your target customers to learn what they eat on a daily basis. In other words, you’d ask them to report what types of protein they eat with each meal, whether animal-based or plant-based. You could prompt them to enter data three times a day and submit pictures to reduce the risk of incorrect self-reporting.

In parallel, you would interview people to dig into their motivations for choosing different types of protein for each meal. The resulting insights would shed light on their decision-making criteria and on opportunities for plant-based proteins.

Analysis of the experience sampling data will help you identify customer behaviors over time, and the interview data will illuminate the motivating factors behind those behaviors.

Packaging design

Let’s say you want to redesign a package for a leading brand of veggie burgers. You might start with observational research with actual customers in the grocery store. You would ask customers to explain their evaluation process in order to identify which package design factors influence decision-making the most – colors, images, labels or certifications, benefits messaging, see-through vs. opaque packaging, etc.

Based on those insights, you would create three or four versions of the redesigned package to test various hypotheses. Then you would run a quantitative experiment to understand which package design converts the most shoppers into customers. Using the existing packaging as the “control,” you would test the new designs, see how they perform on a variety of metrics, and make your packaging decision with solid evidence. You could also also use this approach in real-world settings by testing various packaging prototypes in different locations and using sales data to evaluate performance.


Investing in customer research is critical to creating products that people love and recommend, which leads to success for your brand. We focus on the plant-based and emerging cell-based meat industries, which can greatly benefit from more and deeper customer insights. In order to scale, these products will require consumers to displace their existing, very sticky behaviors and attitudes around food. By combining qualitative and quantitative data, we get a fuller picture of the deeply human aspects of the target consumer and the reliability of statistically significant data.

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