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Using User Research to Improve Customer Relationships

Everyone wants to feel heard and appreciated. That is the first thing you learn in any book about relationships. In the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, five of the nine principles laid out by Dale Carnegie are based on listening and showing appreciation.

When we do user research, our goal is to help users feel those two things.

Because of that, we believe no other workplace activity can improve relationships like user research. More than sales, more than lunches. More than anything else.

However, we understand many people worry about asking too much of their customers. In addition, companies worry about ruining the relationship with potential customers before it even begins.

These are both valid concerns. No one wants to ruin a customer relationship.

However, what we have experienced in our time doing research is the exact opposite. When we do research with existing or potential customers, the relationship strengthens. Sales and friendships can be the result of great user research.

In this article, we are going to provide four tips to help you conduct user research that improves relationships. Whether it is a user interview, usability test, or card sorting exercise, these tips will help you create a strong relationship with current or potential customers.

How to do user interviews that improve relationships

#1: Focus on Empathy

I was once in a user interview with a fellow designer. I was hot out of design school and desperately wanted to do a good job. What I didn't realize is that my companion had a different idea. They designed the product we were testing and, looking back, I realize they weren't looking for feedback. They were looking for praise.

When the user started bringing up some issues, he started asking his own questions. "Well, if you do it like this, doesn't it work?" Leading and biased questions were asked for the rest of our 30 minutes meeting. While the user didn't throw a fit, it was obviously not a good experience.

Empathy is the ability to understand other people's feelings. It is the core of user research and the core of our strongest relationships.

  • Listen to their feedback. Even if it is negative, listen to your users feedback.
  • Show them you are listening. Writing down important facts, asking follow up questions, and even just a simple nod can show people you are with them.
  • Ask them how things make them feel. Using the phrase, "It seems that made you feel _____" is powerful. Ask people and listen to what they have to say.

Going back to the interview I did with my fellow designer, focusing on empathy could have made the user feel more heard and appreciated, allowing them to open up even more. Empathy is the focus of all of our research, and using it can improve your results as well.

#2: Be prepared

I once did a user interview I totally regret. I didn't come up with good questions, didn't sleep well the night before, and had a lot on my mind. Because of this, I came into the interview unprepared. That was the only interview I've ever done where someone was upset. I can imagine this person had a lot on their mind as well. But what set them over the edge was my lack of preparation.

Being prepared is the best way to show respect to your interviewee and to build trust. When they see you have everything ready, their mind eases. And suddenly, you can start building a relationship. Before every user interview, we go through a checklist. Simple things that get us ready to be in the right mindset.

  • Get good sleep. This is CRUCIAL! Getting enough sleep has been proven to improve our mood. Go science!
  • Prep the study days in advance. Don't plan research study questions hours or, worse, minutes before your study. Get your questions done days before the interview happens. That way, you will have time for inspiration to strike and make changes.
  • Dress for the occasion. Showing up with messy hair and missing a button shows your time is more valuable than theirs. That said, don't wear a tux to interview anyone but people at Downton Abbey.

#3: Give a gift

In user studies with non-customers, users are paid for their time. For whatever reason, companies feel they can get away with not paying incentives to existing customers. This is crazy. There is no quicker way to ruin a relationship than not appreciating someone's time. You might be able to get away with it once. But you usually don't just want to talk to someone one time. And, you certainly aren't going to be the only one who wants to talk to them.

  • Money.  We have found digital VISA gift cards and Amazon cards are very effective and easy to give.
  • Discounts on software. Be sure to speak to your marketing and sales team before doing this, but it can be even better than money and cost you less.
  • Something personal. While it is a big risk, it can be huge for building trust. If they mention an activity they like doing, try finding something related. Best to do with users that have similar interests and hobbies as you, so you can be a good judge.

#4: Follow up

This is very important. Don't just give people a gift and call it good. Wait a week and follow up again. Send them an email or text, whichever you contacted them with before, and tell them again how much you appreciated their time and help. We have found that, more than a gift, people love this small act of kindness.


When doing user research, we are often asking a lot of people. My company Alpine Studios does a lot of testing on difficult subjects like mental health, politics, and even does these studies in different countries. The principles remain the same. Show up prepared and focus on empathy. Give a gift that matches the person's value. And make sure to follow up.

If you follow these four steps, I am 100% confident that you will build powerful relationships with both potential customers and existing customers. Now go find some users and get to work!

Want more ideas like this one? 
Twice a month, I send an email teaching startup founders and employees to use design to improve their companies. It is a ton of fun!

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