How do you learn about your customers?

Some companies guess or rely on their sales and marketing team to provide all the information about who their customers are. That is useful information, but it’s not enough for finding out what your clients really want, how they work, and what products and services will be most appealing to them.

Other companies conduct market surveys, have client advisory panels, and interview their clients. These are great ways to learn more about the people you are trying to serve and to help sell products and services, but consultants and companies often overlook an equally valuable research method that is rooted in anthropology.

Key informant interviewing vs. contextual research

The use of anthropological principles in conducting product and customer research has become very popular of late, and for good reason. Anthropologists can be viewed as the first market researchers, and their discoveries can provide truly actionable learning. It’s been over the last five or so years that companies have embraced anthropologists and ethnographers as part of the market/design research process, and many market researchers have adapted ethnographic methods for their own use. Researchers have typically focused on the method of contextual research — that is, getting out into the customer environments to see how they really work and to interview them in their environments. A method that is often overlooked that can provide valuable insight is key informant interviewing.

While key informant interviewing sounds like something that the police do, it’s a very valuable source of information that anthropologists have put to good use in their investigations of a people or group. Anthropologists found that in most groups they were studying there was someone within the group who could provide a unique perspective on the group as a whole. Often this was an elder in the tribe or family who could describe the history of the family, roles, and norms that would have taken a very long time for the researcher to uncover and understand. Often, the key informant is not someone that is thought of as an expert in the group you are seeking to learn more about, and is almost certainly someone who hasn’t been conducting research on this group. They often have some close relationship with the group that allows them to provide understanding.

Several years ago, we were building a web portal targeted at teens. It would focus on entertainment, sports, and school, but was also going to have a “moral” perspective as well, discussing topics of morality and ethics. We augmented our interviews with teens with interviews with key informants. The key informants we chose were parents, youth pastors, and high school and college guidance counselors. These people hadn’t spent years studying teenagers, but they did have an in-depth knowledge of what teens are interested in, how they communicate, and their concerns.

Would these key informant interviews alone have been enough to design the product on? Not a chance! But they did provide information that took us in different directions related to content, and more importantly they helped us frame the research that we were doing with the teens.
Key informant interviewing can be done in all contexts, it just takes some thinking about whom these people are and a slightly specific way of interviewing them to get the most useful information.

Who are key informants?

They can be anyone. The shipping manager at a company can talk about the sales force; the administrative assistant can talk about how a copier is used by the staff; a janitor can provide great insight into how a group handles recycling and trash; the “mail room guy” might know more about the goings on in an organization than anyone. The insight collected from these “experts” can be invaluable.

The bottom line

There are several guidelines that need to be kept in mind that help with key informant interviewing:

  • Key informants have biases like everyone else. You can’t take everything that is said as a fact. You have to ask a question in different ways and even then only use the information as one view of a group.

  • Expect that people will give you one of 3 types of answers: guesses, dducated guesses, and data. You want to avoid guesses. Don’t ask the janitor how you think the company they service will like a new database management system. You want ask questions that give you data, but occasional educated guesses are also useful.

  • You must tailor your questions to their personal experiences. Ask questions in such a way that the key informant can use their own vocabulary and report experiences they have first hand knowledge of.

  • Stay clear of questions that seem gossipy or that sound like you are trying to elicit secret information. Be upfront about why you are conducting the interview and let them know that you value their insight. You will be amazed at what people can and will tell you.

  • Key informant interviewing is useful at any stage of your learning, but it provides an excellent starting point for directing your questions going forward. Consider talking to one of these “experts” before you start your other research activities.
  • In business, the more information we have about our customers, the more targeted we can be with our marketing, sales, advertising, and customer service. Include key informant interviewing as a part of your efforts to understand your customers and clients, and you’ll find that you’re collecting information that can be used in many ways.

    Ross Teague, Manager of Design Reseach and Senior Human Factors Psychologist for HumanCentric Technologies ( ). He provides what he calls ‘informed inspiration’ for companies that truly innovate. With a doctorate in Applied Cognition and Human Factors, Ross claims to have the best job in the world. Where else can you make your living by putting yourself in other people’s shoes? Ross brings user and product insight to life. He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or