Uncovering the Right Questions


Check out Thinking Outside The Sandbox and this podcast featuring our founder discussing how design thinking and the power of the voice of the customer can drive change and foster innovation not only for enterprise but small business as well.

(1:08): Our founder’s story

(4:37): An introduction to STORYLINE

(8:09): Design thinking for customer insight

(10:42): The need for employee insight to drive engagement with customer insight

(14:15): Why STORYLINE's approach to design thinking is so high touch

(21:09): Getting buy-in to insight from the broader organization

(23:32): Design thinking and systems thinking within STORYLINE's process

(25:28): Scaling the insights process from enterprise to small business

(28:10): How professionals across industry verticals can start thinking differently

(32:23): The importance of feedback loops

Link >>> Uncovering the Right Questions

From the host: "Over the past several decades, design thinking has moved beyond the province of engineers and product development teams and been adopted in a variety of industries, from insurance to finance to education. In this conversation, Pete Kotsonis of STORYLINE, a customer research agency specializing in design thinking, explores how human centered design can help educational institutions look in the mirror, ask better questions, and develop solutions that respond to the needs and aspirations of the people they serve."

Design Thinking Events To Attend In 2018


We often hear the question, “how can I learn to incorporate design thinking into my role?” So we decided to compile a comprehensive list of conferences, workshops, learning labs, collaborative sessions and panels to attend in 2018. Whether you’re looking for a two-hour crash course in San Francisco or a four-day conference in Boston, there’s surely an opportunity for you to expand your knowledge this year.

Want us to add an event to this calendar? Post details in the comments!

Note: The following list is organized in chronological order by the type of event.


LX 2018 - Leading Experience

Driving Sustainable Growth and Competitive Advantage Through Human Centered Design Conference - Design Thinking USA

FEI - Front End Innovation


Design Thinking for Faculty - Zip Idea Lab

Design Thinking Bootcamp - The Design Gym

Design Thinking for Decision Makers - Enterprise Growth Institute & LeadLocal

Design Thinking for Faculty - Zip Idea Lab

Introductory Design Thinking Workshop - Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school)

Crash Course in Design Thinking - Justinmind

Design Thinking & Building a Sustainable Business Workshop - Canopy Somerville

Design Thinking Workshop with Brian Matt - Harvard Innovation Labs and Altitude

Workshop: Design Thinking Fundamentals – Generate New Ideas, Solve Challenging Problems, and Make Strategic Decisions - Be Social Change

Leading HR with Design Thinking Story Night - General Assembly

A Design Thinking Workshop - Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation FlashLab

Design Thinking Bootcamp - General Assembly

Design Thinking Bootcamp - The Design Gym

Human-Centered Problem Solving: a Design Thinking Workshop - SmallBox

Design Thinking Workshop - Harvard Extension School: Professional Development Programs

An Interactive Introduction to Design Thinking - NASPA

Fundamentals of Innovation Through Human-Centered Design - LUMA Institute

Human Centered Design/Design Thinking Workshop - The Design Academy

Design Thinking Bootcamp - The Design Gym

Design Thinking: A People-Focused Approach to Defining Problems - University of New Hampshire and STORYLINE LLC

Design Thinking Workshop - Harvard Extension School: Professional Development Programs

Design Thinking Workshop - Harvard Extension School: Professional Development Programs

Fundamentals of Innovation through Human-Centered Design - LUMA Institute

Fundamentals of Innovation through Human-Centered Design - LUMA Institute

Design Thinking Workshop - Harvard Extension School: Professional Development Programs

DMI Workshops: Design Thinking - Design Management Institute


Design Research Techniques - Cooper

Mastering Innovation & Design Thinking - MIT Professional Education

Designing for Change Course - IDEO U

User Experience Design Training - Cooper

Design Thinking Certificate Program - Bryant University

Design Research Techniques NYC - Cooper

Design Thinking Certificate Program - Bryant University

Mastering Innovation & Design Thinking - MIT Professional Education

Hello Design Thinking Class - IDEO U


Inside the Design Studio & Healthcare - General Assembly

Design Thinking: A New Approach for Sales - Do Tank

Design Thinking Crash Course - The Design Gym

Design Thinking Crash Course - The Design Gym

Design Thinking: A New Approach for Sales - Do Tank

Design Thinking: A New Approach for Sales - Do Tank

Free Your Internal Audience With Podcasts


Why drudge through a 50-page PowerPoint deck to get your customer insight when you could listen to it on your way in to work?

This is the question we posed to one of our client teams at Bose recently, and boy were they intrigued. Half a dozen podcasts later, something incredible happened – senior-level decision makers who were often a challenge to engage emerged to praise the format. They were listening!

“I like the podcast format,” said one stakeholder, “I listen once while in the car commuting, but obviously need to focus on the road so I then listen a second time while relaxing on the beach - where I can give it my undivided attention.”

While the idea of using a podcast to tell a story is nothing new as of late, they’re not being used internally at the enterprise level to bring customer stories to life. Yet what we find most intriguing about them is they lure the internal audiences that are typically the most difficult to acquire (decision makers, executives), simply because it frees them up to consume the content during timeslots where their eyes can be doing something else (e.g., driving, running, or yes – relaxing on a beach).

We know that customer understanding is directly tied to business success, so why would you attempt to shoehorn the customer story into a format decision makers don’t have time to consume? Consider the needs of your audience as we did, and take advantage of podcasts.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about our approach to podcasting for internal audiences.

New Thinking Starts With An Old Tradition


We believe leaders at most companies aspire to some degree of innovation; be it with a new product, service or experience. The challenge with driving real innovation, however, is it often requires an organization to shift to a new way of thinking, followed by new ways of working. Meaningful innovation demands change from within, which creates two problems:

Leadership faces an engagement challenge. Business leaders may have line of sight to strategic opportunities to innovate, but generating buy-in at the implementation level to rationale and changes associated with innovation can be difficult; particularly in the largest of organizations. A company cannot innovate without the buy-in of its employees.

Internal audiences are fatigued by corporate communications. PowerPoints and their counterparts are not compelling enough to engage internal audiences because they are so pervasive and largely considered white noise. Data and analytics, while appealing to business leaders, lack the details and emotional pull to engage the broader organization. The net result is leadership cannot generate the buy-in needed if their message cannot break through the white noise.

At STORYLINE, we are using customer stories to deliver new ways of thinking and unlock new ways of working. The power of storytelling has been known for centuries and yet research into customers has largely gone away from it in favor of analytics and structured data. Here are the reasons to believe in customer stories as they pertain to customer research:


Not only is empathy the centerpiece of our in-depth approach to understanding people, it is critical to driving engagement with the content resulting from our work. For some of our clients, experiencing their customer's world first-hand during a ride-a-long to a contextual interview is enough to emotionally connect with the heart of the matter. The majority of stakeholders cannot break away from their day-to-day activities, however, so that emotional connection can not be generated in the same manner. For the majority, empathy needs a vessel and we generate it through customer stories. Check out a case study for an example.


Employee engagement is paramount to achieving success in business innovation. Stories can connect employees with their customers in ways they have never experienced before. We take great care in crafting the delivery of our content to ensure the highest levels of engagement possible. Check out a case study for an example.


Stories establish a level of credibility with the audience that helps foster alignment among internal teams. Unlike surveys, they can give us a rich picture of the 'why' behind customer attitude and behaviors. We base the foundation for our stories in the voice of the customer which establishes a degree of rigor that is unmatched and further lends to the credibility of the content we generate. Check out a case study for an example.


Once you accept the power of storytelling for customer research, it opens new doors into presenting insights in compelling ways. Our charge is to make our content as sticky as possible, because it matters to those who shared their stories with us and to those evangelizing new ways of thinking and ways of working within their organization. Check out a case study for an example.

Southern New Hampshire University Casts Their Vote For STORYLINE At SXSW 2018. Now You Can Too!


Exeter, NH, August 17, 2017 -- STORYLINE, a customer research agency specializing in design thinking, has been nominated by Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to co-present at SXSW in March. Cast your vote here to send us to Austin!  http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/78304

"As the pool of post-secondary students grows more diverse, there is often a gap between what students need to be successful and the programs designed to support them. This session will relate how design thinking helped one university uncover the student journey, revealing the barriers non-traditional students face in acquiring their degrees and the accelerators that can unlock their potential. We will also share how this initiative has sparked program re-design." - Steve Brown, Deputy Dir, Sandbox Collaborative at Southern New Hampshire University

The SXSW EDU Conference & Festival fosters innovation in learning by hosting a community of optimistic, forward-thinking, purpose-driven stakeholders with a shared goal of impacting the future of teaching and learning.

The eighth annual SXSW EDU will return to Austin, March 5-8, 2018, for four days of compelling sessions, in-depth workshops, engaging learning experiences, mentorship, film screenings, startup events, policy discussions, competitions, exhibitions, networking and so much more. Through collaboration, creativity and engagement, SXSW EDU empowers its global community to connect, discover and impact.

SXSW EDU is a component of the South by Southwest® (SXSW®) family of conferences and festivals. Internationally recognized as the convergence gathering for creative professionals, SXSW EDU extends SXSW’s support for the art of engagement to include society’s true rock stars: educators!


Founded in 2013, STORYLINE is a qualitative customer research agency specializing in Design Thinking. Every business is in the people business and STORYLINE’s unique approach to accelerating understanding of the customer journey has been recognized by companies like Bose, Philips and Duke University Medicine as a best practice. Key areas of focus include Ethnography, Voice of the Customer, Personas, Journey Mapping and Ideation.


Principal Contact:
Pete Kotsonis,

With Voice Of The Customer, Every Word Matters

We hear consistent feedback from our clients that one of the most valuable services we offer is getting them face-to-face with their customers in the environments where they live, work and play via what we call “ride-alongs” during our ethnographic interviews.

It can be far too easy to rely solely on customer data and analytics to understand and predict their behavior. Quantitative data has its place – but walking in your customers’ shoes in a meaningful way? We believe that’s a game changer in terms of emotional experience and empathy-building that you’ll never find in a spreadsheet!

Getting our clients out of the office and immersing them in their customers' world is critical because it provides individuals from multiple disciplines (e.g., marketing, design) the opportunity to internalize their customers' experiences in their own way. This is key when it comes to socializing the customer perspective and changing mindsets during later stages of our process because stakeholders will have seen and heard the same things that we have.

Having stakeholders from multiple departments present during interviews, however, can also present one of the biggest challenges of in-depth contextual interviews – getting each stakeholder to widen their gaze and see the bigger picture beyond what matters most to them and their team’s goals. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one… there's an old parable about blind men and an elephant that we often reference that illustrates this well.

The earliest versions are found in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts, and they discuss the limits of perception and the importance of complete context. The parable has several Indian variations, but broadly goes like this:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it.
In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, "elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

During contextual interviews, it’s easy (and natural!) for stakeholders from different disciplines to observe only what matters most to them. Executives will focus on one aspect, marketing will focus on another. Design sees one thing, engineering sees something different. They may become disparate vantage points, while the most meaningful insights are in fact assembled from multiple vantage points coming together to form something larger and more meaningful – not just the tusk or the ear, but the whole elephant. 

We overcome this challenge by grounding these points in the voice of the customer, ensuring we capture every angle of the customer story to foster alignment. To serve this end, we generate transcripts for every interview. Transcripts enable us to slow the conversation down.

Following each interview, we break each customer story down, identifying every fact and feeling, and rigorously organizing it in an actionable framework. Much like the process of archaeology, we unpack the disparate pieces that were dug up and reassemble multiple skeletons piece by piece. And there are no bones left behind, nothing left to chance, because we have the transcripts. Following this rigorous process enables us to deliver the big picture. It’s a labor of love, to be sure, but it enables us to foster alignment among internal client stakeholders, which is invaluable in this age of the customer.

Fostering alignment with the voice of the customer

Bigger picture in hand, we accelerate our clients’ understanding of the challenges their customers face and identify new opportunity spaces for disruptive solutions. We map how the challenges all fit together, and track how decisions made in one area of the customer experience could potentially cause issues elsewhere. Transcripts are vehicles to capture what matters most to everyone involved and get teams on the same path to innovation.

Tailor Your Insights Delivery To Your Audience Part 1: Storybooks

We've been fortunate to have led a handful of research projects on the working culture of organizations, and what makes them tick. One of the key insights we've uncovered has been the stifling nature of traditional corporate communications. Between internal emails, presentations, newsletters and even social media, there's so much white noise a message must break through in the corporate environment before it even has a chance to land, let alone resonate with its audience.

In our case, that message is often game-changing insight into customers that is desperately needed by marketing, development and customer experience teams. If that message can't break through -- everyone loses. We know we need to tailor our content to our audience, otherwise it's not going to stick.

That means not only having an appreciation for what our audience is up against, but how they're wired to receive our message as well. That was never more the case than with the Irvine, California-based video game developer and publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, who is best known for blockbuster hits including World of Warcraft and the Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo series. Blizzard presented a unique challenge in that their internal stakeholder audience was largely made up of gamers who were fatigued by traditional mediums of corporate communications (we're looking at you, PowerPoint).

We also gained insight into channels that resonated during discussions with Blizzard employees. Of particular interest to us was a story involving a presentation sent in by a vendor that arrived in an treasure chest (yes, really!). The recipient had to open the chest and dig through toy coins to reach the message. That set the tone for us around how customer insights would need to be delivered in order for the content to pop.

The format we put together for Blizzard shown below is what we call Storybooks, and is the result of blending the message of a customer story with a visual architecture that was relevant to the needs of the audience. More immersive than a persona and lighter on the attention span than a traditional report.

Why give your audience a white paper report if they'd much rather look through a magazine? Don't get tied down by a legacy mindset. The existing mediums you use to message customer insight may have been developed to serve your needs more than those of your audience. Listen to your audience, be open to disrupting your own toolbox and deliver your message in something that is truly tailored.


Storybooks, Page One:

Storybooks, Page Two:

Storybooks, Page THREE:

Storybooks, Page FOUR:

Storybooks, Page FIVE:

Storybooks, Page SIX:

New Hampshire Business Review Names STORYLINE "Best of Business 2017"

Exeter, NH, March 7 2017 -- STORYLINE, a customer research agency specializing in design thinking, has been selected as a winner in NH Business Review’s 2017 BOB Awards, which honor the best of business in New Hampshire in over 90 categories. STORYLINE was recognized as one of the state's best companies with which to do business and awarded an editor's pick in the category of Best Approach To Understanding Customers.

"With 3,500 ballots cast for the 2017 Awards, the BOBs continue to be a considered a standard of excellence in New Hampshire’s business community," said Jeff Feingold, editor of NH Business Review.

The Best of Business Awards are presented by NH Business Review and are sponsored by Comcast Business Class, Bernstein Shur, 95.7 WZID, Tufts Freedom Health Plan, FairPoint Communications, AutoFair, Primmer Law, Cross Insurance, Waste Management and the Business & Industry Association of NH.

NH Business Review is a subsidiary of Yankee Publications and is part of the McLean Communications companies which includes New Hampshire Magazine, New Hampshire Home Magazine and Parenting New Hampshire. 


Founded in 2013, STORYLINE is a qualitative customer research agency specializing in Design Thinking. Every business is in the people business and STORYLINE’s unique approach has been recognized by companies like Bose, Philips and Duke University Medicine as a best practice. Key areas of focus include Ethnography, Voice of the Customer, Design Thinking, Personas, Journey Mapping and Ideation.

www.storylineLLC.com | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Instagram

Principal Contact:
Pete Kotsonis, +1-617-281-9804

Luggage Can Be Replaced; Your Content Can't

Tips For Conducting Design Research Outside The U.S. (Part 2)

As we revealed in our previous post, conducting in-depth qualitative research outside the U.S. introduces great opportunities, but also barriers that we must overcome to deliver on our promise of quality content. In this post, we want to share the second of two keys to success that have enabled us to achieve our clients' objectives overseas.

Don’t Let Them Speak English (really!)

Since 2013, we have conducted in-depth interviews with research participants based in 35+ different countries. Not surprisingly, in most of these cases English has not been the respondent’s primary language. What has surprised us, however, is how many of these research participants have wanted to speak English during our conversations. In B2B research, respondents have done so out of respect for the companies involved. For some B2C research, we have found certain segments of customers who have desired to demonstrate their mastery.

As thrilling for them and flattering for us as it may be, the reality is when it's not their native language, research participants often struggle to hold conversation in English at emotional and essential levels of discussion; where content generation becomes most critical. We’ve seen even the most experienced individuals fare brilliantly through superficial and intellectual conversation but stumble when trying to articulate more deeply-rooted reasoning.

We were in Copenhagen recently conducting a B2C ethnographic study with a professional who worked in international politics. He was thrilled to host us in his home and his conversational English was exceptional – what a storyteller! We had arranged through our local partner to have a moderator and translator present, but he considered them an unnecessary formality. He became so delightfully insistent he could share his story in English for the duration of the two-hour in-home interview that after some lighthearted debate we opted to let him try.

His English through the first 30-40 minutes of the interview was excellent as he took control of the stage, providing us with an impassioned tour of the key areas of his home and responding to questions about the products he owned; things we would consider baseline content to establish rapport and a foundation for laddering into deeper tiers of conversation.

As we began to take the interview into more emotional territory, seeking out the “why” behind his attitude and decision-making, however, the flow of the conversation became erratic. He began pausing mid-sentence, raising his eyes upwards as if his words had escaped him and ran to the ceiling. He began to look to the moderator and translator for help with a single word, then an expression. It was evident English was not serving him as well as his native Danish when it came to articulating what mattered to him most and why. It was then that he paused and smiled, waving his finger at us in realization that we had been right.

Don’t risk compromising your content. Whether you're conducting interviews onsite or remotely, set expectations in advance through your local partner and respectfully push back if participants insist they want to try and speak English with you present. In every case, hire a professional interpreter through your local partner and have them on hand. To further enhance quality and efficiency, leverage one of your partner’s moderators as well.

Luggage Can Be Replaced; Your Content Can’t

Tips For Conducting Design Research Outside the U.S. (Part 1 of 2)

At STORYLINE, several our clients have teams around the world – which means we are often tasked with taking our team and methods abroad to support their efforts in-region. While the cultures, environments and local cuisine may change, our goal of uncovering rich, quality insights for them via design-focused methodologies does not!

Conducting in-depth qualitative research outside the U.S. introduces great opportunities, but also barriers that we must overcome to deliver on our promise of quality content. In this post, we want to share the first of two keys to success that have enabled us to achieve our – and hence, our clients’ – objectives.

Establish Trusted Partners In Target Markets

When conducting ethnographic interviews internationally, the quality of your content begins with the quality of your international partners. No business has a qualified internal base camp at the ready in every region to support design research, so establishing quality partners on the ground is a challenge even the largest companies must overcome.

These partners are the trusted extensions of your team on the ground, street-level in the regions you’re targeting – the experienced teams or individuals who know you and your approach and are ready to support you. These are the folks that you will need to lean on, not only for the expected (e.g., recruitment, interpretation or translation, potentially moderation) but the unexpected as well (e.g., when leadership asks for a few anecdotes from consumers in Japan and gives you two days to pull it off).

Word to the wise: there is a bit of snake oil out there too! Be cautious if you’re beginning with a blank slate of existing partnerships. We have heard from too many clients who contracted with international service providers that overpromise just to get business with U.S. brands and end up under-delivering down the stretch – most often companies who say they can facilitate this type of research simultaneously in multiple regions are in fact survey houses or focus group factories. If the promises seem too good to be true, they probably are. Do your homework, use referrals when you can – the quality of the insights that you gather could be at risk.

For us, not only do we trust our partners with our business but our clients’ business as well. We’ve spent years vetting potential partners and enriching the relationships we trust.  

And we’re fortunate to have established great relationships with teams that not only know our process, but they’ve connected with our people on a personal level. When U.S. news breaks from our region, we’re often in their thoughts. When the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, our partners in France and Spain reached out to check that we were all safe. It’s teams like these we can reach out to in a pinch or with an unusual request because they know us and therefore they’re willing to go the extra mile.

When quality content is on the line, there is simply too much at stake in terms the quality of research participants and the project timeline to have a company taking a 30,000-foot view. We partner with those already working street level and so should you. This amounts to more effort – but if your goal is quality content, it’s is the only way to go when conducting design research engagements internationally.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on this topic – “Don’t Let Them Speak English (Really!”)

Every Negative Moment In An Experience Is An Opportunity

At STORYLINE, we evangelize the value of identifying negative moments in the customer experience because each one is an opportunity to elevate a product or service from good to great.

Let's take a look at a matrix we employ to empower our clients to take action on these moments. If you’re familiar with Diana LaSalle and Terry A. Britton's fantastic book Priceless, what you’re seeing in this post is our adaptation of their Experience Event Matrix. We've tweaked the original matrix and how we use it, grounding it in the needs of our clients who require specific direction to drive development of new products and services.

First, let’s briefly touch on the layout of the matrix. As we map a given experience with qualitative insight from customers, we first project the positive moments above and negatives below. Any moments that customers perceive to be neither positive nor negative we place in neutral territory. Then from left to right, we rank the level of impact of each moment through the customer lens from the expected to the unexpected. The further to the right we go, the closer we get to truly memorable moments; be they positive or (gasp!) negative.

As we plot these moments into the matrix, we also assign each of them a numerical value from 1-3, respectively as you move left to right. If it’s positive, it receives a (+) value, and if negative it receives a (-) value. Total up all the moments and we get a net value. As you can see in the example above, the net value is in the negative. While this may seem to be an experience everyone would want to avoid, we pulled it from an actual engagement we had with a progressive veterinary hospital and the moments are quite typical for emergency cases. The surprising reality we've uncovered through this way of thinking is customers are surrounded by these net-negative experiences, and have come to accept many of them as the status quo.

The value of identifying negative moments in particular in this fashion is it gives developers clarity when looking to establish priorities for their roadmap. They can see what they're up against. All that remains is taking action on the negative side of the landscape, moment by moment.

Here's the point we evangelize with our clients the most: every negative moment in an experience is an opportunity to reposition it on the matrix; either by flipping it into the positive, neutralizing it or diluting its negative impact. In this way, we make the evaluation actionable. This is key for our audience because simply evaluating the experience is not enough; developers need specific direction and with this approach we are effectively constructing a 'to-do list' of moments that are primed for ideation.

As you can see in the example above, we've also illustrated how the veterinary hospital is generating solutions that reposition a number of key moments in the experience. The net result is they have identified how to shift from a net-negative experience to a positive one, which will significantly differentiate their emergency services from regional competitors.

Negative moments can actually become springboards to opportunities to make your product or service experience more relevant and impactful with customers; and therefore more differentiated in the marketplace. Get to know your customers on a richer level, identify what you're up against and get control of your experiences, one moment at a time. 

Take Your Customer Conversations To The Next Level

These days we are finding companies treading water in the wake of their own customer analytics. They have expanded their data sets, yet they are still searching for answers; still searching for the "why" behind survey results. The majority of customer insight interactions are short-lived and simply aren't structured to get beyond the "what" of the customer experience.

Conversations with customers may be perceived as less efficient, but they do unlock three attributes to customer insight that analytics and other means fail to deliver on: depth, emotion and authenticity; all keys to revealing the elusive "why".

The only trick is knowing how to navigate each customer conversation, or in our case an in-depth interview, to ensure you are getting the answers to your most burning questions. 


First know that there are content tiers to every conversation. An awareness of these tiers enables a better vantage point from which to speak with a customer and generate meaningful insight. We'll draw upon an actual customer story above to help illustrate each content tier.

  • SUPERFICIAL: The first tier of content in conversation, largely made up of initial surface-level responses. In the graphic above, "Small business, we're scrappers. We're scrappy." is a perfect example. On the surface, small business owners can appear confident and scrappy; jacks-of-all-trades that just know how to get it done. If we were to stop the conversation here, we would miss their harsh reality.
  • INTELLECTUAL: Moving up into the second tier of content, the intellectual tier reveals a very objective view of what the customer's life is like today as well as rational reasoning behind their decision-making. "There's just so much to do, but somehow we get through it," sheds some light on the challenges inherent to being a small business owner but doesn't convey the emotional depths to which they must go, so push further.
  • EMOTIONAL: The third tier of content in conversation marks a transition from the "what" behind customer responses to the "why". Quality time leads to a strong rapport and smart questioning continues to elevate the discussion. In this tier, discussion becomes emotionally-charged as customers feel comfortable sharing their feelings, triggering empathy. In the graphic above, the customer was ready to take the conversation deeper. "Every night we go to bed thinking, how am I going to get through this?" No longer is this customer the scrapper who doesn't need any help; this is becoming an entirely different story. Fantastic insight into needs and desires can be discovered in the emotional tier, but don't stop there.
  • ESSENTIAL: The fourth tier of content, the essential tier, is where customer core beliefs and motivations are revealed. It won't come quickly so you will need time to establish rapport. It's each customer's endgame, and therefore the most valuable content you can generate. In the example above we learn: "There are no manuals for this. We're real people out here, so if you really want to get to the heart of us, help us." At last the customer is truly revealed and we can begin to learn who we are really building solutions for.

To move upwards into higher tiers of content during the conversation, you will need to employ a technique we use called laddering. Now that you know there is richer content you can access in each tier, you just need to ladder to get to it. Simply take the most superficial responses to your initial questions and pose variations on the question "why?" to ladder-up. Why do small business owners have to be scrappy? If it's because there's so much to do, why must everything get done? How does the experience make them feel? If they go to bed worried every night, why would help be so valuable?

Awareness of the content tiers and the practice of laddering will take your customer conversations to the next level.

Obsessed With Your Customers? Don't Forget Your Employees

Customers today are more empowered than ever. In response, companies are becoming more and more customer-focused. With so much attention going to the customer, we worry companies are missing the bigger picture. Unless you set your employees up for success, it doesn’t matter what you want to build for the customer; your employees won’t get you where you want to go.

We sat down recently with a Vice President of Marketing at a client of ours to discuss this very scenario. A specific customer segment was projected to have nearly double the growth rate of other segments on which the business had traditionally focused. This growing customer segment was identified by leadership as a key, strategic focus for the business. The goal was to become obsessed with the needs of this growing segment so as to ensure success for the company in the future. From leadership’s seat atop the organization, the new direction became quite clear. They had data, analytics and a handful of pie charts showing them where to shift the organization’s thinking. 

The problem was employees weren’t wired that way. The pie charts didn’t resonate and leadership’s approach to challenging the broader organization to step up wasn’t helping. “It’s a little bit like the elephant and the rider,” recalls the VP. “The rider is very receptive to the pie charts, but the elephant needs more than just the rider kicking its butt.” 

Yes, the elephant needs more, and with so much focus going into obsessing over customers, how much focus is left to ensure the broader organization is being set up for a successful pivot? There are two challenges we see companies face when seeking to pivot their approach to customers in this new era:

First, there is an emotional challenge. Employees need emotional pull to start heading in the new direction. Leaders need to find that emotional connection to get the broader organization thinking about the customer in a new way. That emotional connection isn’t going to come from the analytics, says the VP. “It’s not enough to ask a third party to survey 10,000 customers… you’ll get a nice pie chart.” For insight into establishing emotional engagement, check out this approach.

Second, there is an operational challenge. There will be obstacles in the way of the broader organization as it attempts to make the shift to this new way of thinking and new ways of working. Leaders need to identify those obstacles (macro and micro) and empower employees in new ways so they can be successful in overcoming them. 

Companies can overcome these challenges, but leadership needs to realize the bigger picture and make a pivot of their own. The age of the customer, as firms like Forrester Research have called it, isn’t just about designing for the customer; it’s about designing for the employee as well. Tactically, it isn’t that big a leap for leadership in terms of the initial approach. The same methods to generating deeper insight into customer needs and desires can yield an equally rich understanding of what employees are up against, what is keeping them up at night and what they desire most from their experience. But it does require leaders to think differently, which may be the biggest challenge.

For more insight into design for employee experience, check out a case study.

Design Ethnography: What We're Taking Into The Field

Ever wondered what design ethnographers are carrying around during field work? Following a recent trip to the midwest, we did a visual autopsy on one of our bags to answer that question.

Before we divulge the inventory (the bag weighed 22lbs when we checked), it's worth noting that for the majority of ethnographic projects, we're often in the field for 6-12 hours a day. We move from location to location, conducting 2-4 interviews daily and talking with folks for up to 2-3 hours at a time. Between interviews we're driving, making calls, camping out at coffee shops, uploading data, recharging batteries and fine-tuning the approach to ensure our clients are achieving their goals.

For us, ethnography is a practice that demands a high level of energy, diligence, empathy, curiosity, creativity and a good sense of humor.

Oh, and everything in this bag, too! All of the items below are in the bag shown above and we've broken them out by category for this visual autopsy.

1. AudiO & imagery

We are transmitting audio via Sennheiser lav mic systems and recording on Zoom H1 recorders. The Zoom mics have a handy auto-level feature that captures the quieter moments. We always bring a second set of lavs/mics for those moments where someone else shows up unexpectedly and has fantastic content to share.

Our digital SLR is a Sony NEX-6, and we love it for its low profile. It doesn't take up much space and fits easily into a jacket pocket.

2. Video

We capture specific close-up video vignettes with the Sony NEX-6, but for reference video we use our GoPros. They're incredibly agile with accessories; we can capture just about every angle. A GoPro is also great for first person point-of-view captures.

For documentary-style footage, the gear we use requires four additional bags so they're not going to fit here! That equipment will be covered in another upcoming post.


At the heart of the content we generate is the discussion guide. We prepare it prior to the field work in collaboration with our clients. It's loaded with the questions, activities and proprietary tools that help us generate meaningful insight.

Confidentiality agreements and business cards are standard fare, but chocolates from our local chocolatier in Exeter are a treat that always get us started off on the right foot.

4. Production

We are most efficient in the field when we can shift into production between interviews. We need to review audio, upload content and check in remotely with project stakeholders, make notations.

To accomplish this, we take along our mobile office: a laptop, cell phone and notebook.

5. Utility

The gear that keeps the rest of our gear up and running: chargers, cables, batteries and more. When we're in the field for up to 12 hours, all of this backup power becomes invaluable.

Also worth noting here is a backup 1 terabyte drive. Very handy if the laptop or SD cards start to fill up. Even more so if a client riding along wants immediate access to some of the content because we can hand over the drive.

6. Self

Hydration and fuel are the highest priority in this category. Very, very important to maintaining that high level of energy we mentioned earlier. 

This particular category also changes with the seasons as things like chapstick, tissues and other personal care items become key to surviving full days in the field.

7. Just In Case

As the saying goes, anything can and does happen. Being able to improvise on-the-fly with Post-its or tape in conjunction with tools in the discussion guide is a valuable skill.

And we try to look out for our clients, making sure we've got the little things covered with Band-Aids, stain erasers and extra fuel to get them through the day.


Where Surveys & Focus Groups Fall Short

"We need that North Star," a client told us recently. "We need our customers to guide us." 

It's a scenario we see often, where a company has become so focused on what they can do for their customers that they've lost sight of what they should do. A change agent recognizes the need to verify the course of the ship, looks to the sky and discovers the stars that guide them are now too faint to follow.

Time to reconnect with the reason why your company is in business in the first place: your customers. Time to align your roadmap with their endgame, getting that North Star back into view and adjusting your course. 

But how should you engage your customers? You'll need a meaningful connection with them to solve this challenge, so which path should you take? There are a number of research methods with which to engage customers, and it's important to understand the value and shortcomings of each as they pertain to reacquiring that North Star. 

In our view, the options boil down to whether you need to generate customer insights or validate them (above graphic). In this case the insights are largely an unknown, so we need to generate them; to deeply understand what customers' lives are like today and what they want most from the their experience tomorrow. 

While surveys and focus groups have their relevant place in the insights process, the North Star scenario is where they fall short. Surveys conducted at this stage can leave stakeholders longing for specifics and 'the why' behind the responses. Focus groups can simply lose their focus because stakeholders haven't yet immersed themselves in the customer's world. Whereas ethnography and in-depth interviews can provide an authentic, insider's view into the specific details and emotional content leaders and implementation teams need in order to right the ship.