Active Listening & Customer Research: What Not to Do

In our series on Active Listening, we’ve not only introduced what Active Listening is, but we’ve provided a practical introduction to utilizing the method in customer research. In the latter piece, we told you the best way to know if you were utilizing the approach correctly was to know when you were doing it wrong, and that is what we’ll discuss today.

There is one key way to know if you’re not practicing active listening during customer interviews, and that is you find yourself more in your head, than in the head of the participant. What does this mean? Usually it looks something like this.

You have your interview script in front of you, and after you ask the first question you begin trying to remember the second, third, etc question, instead of listening to the response from the participant. This sounds obvious, but we assure you it’s often the case that researchers are thinking “what’s next” as opposed to being present and listening. In fact, many researchers will try to run through the script verbatim from start to finish, instead of listening actively and adjusting their questions to participant response.

This is doing it wrong.

If you find yourself doing this, stop and listen! It is better to hear what the participant is saying and to understand their responses than to “get all your questions answered”.

You may be thinking, “Wait. Don’t I need a research script to ask all the questions that will meet my research goals?” The answer is yes AND no. We encourage you to create a script and to practice that script ahead of time, but not with the goal of memorizing it. Rather the practice is meant to help you internalize the questions and the purpose behind them so that, when you are in the interview, you can adapt these questions to each participant.

In this way, you maximize the outputs of your research; both by getting the most in-depth, honest responses from participants, and by matching those to your research goals. It’s a win-win.

If you choose not to practice Active Listening during research you’ll get feedback, but it will take you much longer to get the most valuable feedback that drives your product. Therefore, we encourage you to give listening a try. You won’t be sorry.

Active Listening & Customer Research: A Practical Introduction

The last piece in this series provided a conceptual look at how to practice active listening when facilitating customer interviews. Our advice was to “simply be present”; though anyone who’s attempted any sort of mindfulness practice can tell you how complex this really is.

Practically speaking then, how do you start practicing Active Listening in customer interviews now? This is what we aim to discuss here. To do so we’ll share the steps to Active Listening which we follow in our research efforts [1, 2]:

  1. Listen to Comprehend

  2. Retain and Feel

  3. Respond

  4. Repeat

We start with listening intently. By practicing our scripts, having our recording mechanisms set up, and ensuring we maintain composure and eye contact with the participant, we remain present and are able to listen completely.

We then utilize our empathy skillset to feel each participant response. This allows us to retain more understanding of it.

Once we’ve empathetically processed the participant’s point of view, we encourage them with responses which restate or clarify their points. This not only helps the participant to be more open, but it helps train our brains to retain even more.

Finally, we repeat these short steps consistently throughout the interview allowing us to get the most out of each session.

Sounds easy enough, right? But, how do you know you’re doing it right?

In our opinion, the best way to know if you’re doing it right is to know when you’re doing it wrong. And that’s exactly what we’ll be discussing next!


  1. Grohol, John M. Psy.D. Become a Better Listener: Active Listening. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/become-a-better-listener-active-listening/

  2. Common Good (2016, July 14). Practicing Active Listening & Empathy Workshop. Retrieved from https://medium.com/common-good/practicing-active-listening-empathy-workshop-d0895a8f3a00

  3. Wikipedia. Active Listening. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/

Are You Listening?

It’s been mentioned time [1] and again [2] that Active Listening is a key component to exercising empathy. Further, we all know by now that empathy is a main focus of practicing Design Thinking. Despite this, we often notice that although many companies intend to practice active listening, they sadly miss the mark. We believe this miss is due to a failure in truly understanding what Active Listening means.

In lieu of this deeper understanding, companies think all they need to do in order to transform themselves from business-centric environments to human-centric ones, is to “get out of the building and talk with customers”.

They think by solely having conversations with customers regarding a new idea or prototype, then taking detailed notes about what customers like/don’t like/want, and finally turning those comments into features, they have mastered human experience design and are thus practicing design thinking. In reality, they are usually only doing part of what is needed to master the practice.

We believe talking to customers IS the way to transform an organization, but if businesses aren’t actively listening during these conversations the real value will get swept aside. Active listening is more than having an interview with a customer. It’s a practice which requires the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said [3].

In Customer Interviews practicing active listening means being fully immersed in the customer's dialogue, versus trying to solution on the fly or get the participant to answer a question the way the interviewer wants. Active listening means being quiet most of the time, and, more importantly, being fully present.

We’ve found by recording interviews, with the customer’s permission, you can accomplish this present moment awareness much more easily. In this way, you can go back later to notate, analyze, and solution, and save the time with the customer for listening actively.

Instead of companies thinking research can solve it all, we encourage them to investigate the quality of that research. We instruct them to simply be in the interview. If they forego this simple shift, how can they feel the customer’s experience? How can they practice empathy?

They can’t.

And, if they’re not practicing empathy, they certainly aren’t being human centric.


  1. RIT. Design Thinking: Empathizing to Understand the Problem. Retrieved from https://www.rit.edu/ritonline/ritx/THINK502x

  2. Common Good (2016, July 14). Practicing Active Listening & Empathy Workshop. Retried from https://medium.com/common-good/practicing-active-listening-empathy-workshop-d0895a8f3a00

  3. Wikipedia. Active Listening. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/

User Centricity Through Systemic Innovation

I just finished reading Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. It’s a fascinating account of the rise & fall of Theranos, the “innovative” blood testing company that mistook innovation for a public relations campaign.

Besides its psychotically-focused leaders and their enablers, what struck me most about the story is Theranos’ approach to innovation: the siloed, need-to-know-basis of information flow; the detrimental secretiveness that  disempowered and terrified the workforce into silence; the persistent belief that innovation is only reserved for cult personalities with black turtleneck sweaters.

Theranos is an extreme example of siloed innovation. We can easily point to it and say, “That’s crazy-town. That’s not us.”

And yet, look around.

Siloed innovation is still the norm. Organizations have created innovation teams whose mission is to come up with something new, or at least find ways to improve the status quo. They are allocated fun “innovation lab” rooms with squishy balls and cushy chairs in fun colors because...how does one innovate without a slinky (??).

We love working with these teams. They’re full of the best people who do great things for the company. They explore. They succeed. They fail, and then try again.

The rest of the workforce - separated from these teams - looks at “those innovation” people as some creative, experimental task force working on inventing new things. Mostly, the rest of the workforce doesn’t know what these people do. Sometimes, as an afterthought, there’s minimal organized effort to share the innovation mindset with the rest company. That generates some excitement. And, then mostly everyone just goes back to work.

We are back to the need-to-know-basis (albeit less extreme) of Theranos.

From the business perspective, acknowledging the need to think different and providing a safe space to experiment is a great first step. It doesn’t, however, solve the siloed innovation problem because innovation in this case is still in the hands of the few, even though “cross-functional” teams are formed from time to time to “ideate.”  

Even more than that, the idea of an “innovation team” implies that innovation is not a mindset everyone needs to practice, but more of a task for the select few with access to slinkys.

An accountant for example can join a “cross-functional” ideation workshop run by the innovation team. He arrives, contributes, and then goes back to his regular work. He is not guided to take the innovation mindset with him into accounting. His ideas contributed; his job here is done.

For a company to be “innovative,” innovation - this idea of connecting the dots in a way that produces new methods, ideas, products, services that resonate with your target audience - has to be systemic.

What does that mean?

There are many nuanced definitions of “systemic innovation.” In this context, we’ll define it as:

a non-siloed, iterative innovation process practiced by ALL people within the business organization.

This definition implies that to gain an “innovative edge,” the organization needs to ensure that innovation permeates company culture beyond a specific team or a black turtleneck sporting innovation evangelist. The organization’s policies and processes have to nurture an innovation mindset in all of its human capital.

By default, systemic innovation changes the company's DNA by cultivating a human-centered mindset as a way of life for all employees.

As designers we design things (products & services), but we also design organizations and cultures; the employee experience, as well as the customer experience. With strategy and management-led projects, we often wrestle with questions like: what would happen if the organizations employees were taught the innovation mindset as a way of life at work? How do we democratize innovation so that even the accountant feels inspired to solve problems for the business?

Figuring out a way to navigate that transformation is tricky, and I’ll explore that in future posts. Suffice to say, in practicing systemic innovation, the organization becomes one (albeit very large) innovation team.

No slinkys required.


The Path to Innovation

“I don’t want innovation,” said no business… ever. Everyone wants it because innovation means growth, market share, sustainable profit, more valuable brand equity; in other words, life.

It’s the botox of the business world. Some companies slowly tweak here and there for maintenance staying mostly in the safety of original products & services. Others go BIG with major pivots to the point where they become unrecognizable from the original entity.

Just like face fillers, companies have various options open to them on the path to innovation. We prefer using a bespoke, customized version of the Design Thinking process mainly because we’ve tried it a thousand different ways and it works, but there are many different options available. Regardless of which way you go, keep in mind all methods are tools to foster innovation. They don’t guarantee anything.

You can start with Design Thinking, morph it into something else, mash it with another method, and make your own cocktail that works for your business. It’s all OK. It’s all good. The goal is to be on the path to systemic innovation.

And, that’s really the key to business longevity: Systemic innovation.

To be “innovative,” systemic innovation must be ingrained in your company culture. It’s an iterative, repeatable process practiced by all people connected to the business on a daily basis. It changes your DNA. And, unless you establish this practice in your business, you better pray your founder is either Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Jesus. (Clearly, there must be a J in the name at least).

We use Design Thinking to jumpstart companies on the path to systemic innovation. The method offers a path to get there - not because it’s the holy grail that guarantees innovation - but, because its exercises and tools alter the way your team thinks about business challenges, as well as how they experience failure.

That type of thinking - when exponentially multiplied throughout the organization - produces organic systemic innovation.

You’re welcome.

Design Thinking ≠ Innovation

Design thinking does not guarantee innovation.

It’s a process structured to get you thinking in a different way; to get your siloed teams to think differently together; to focus on your customer or whatever human you’re serving with your product/service; to get you out of your stale comfort zone; to get a fresh perspective on your business; to put existing parts of your business into new strategic combinations.  

All that may result in innovation, but only when you put down the resources and commit to bringing your validated ideas to market. That requires lots of hard work by multiple teams in your organization. That’s innovation.

And yet, what Design Thinking does guarantee is a path to innovation; the first few well-travelled bricks on the yellow brick road in the right direction. It’s a guaranteed way to connect you to your customers (or whoever your product/service serves). And, it’s definitely a tool to rewire your brain and your company’s DNA in the process to become more human-centered in your decisions.

Viewing the method of Design Thinking as one that guarantees innovation will leave you disappointed. You’ll miss the journey in the way to your destination. And, the journey here matters a lot.  

Invention ≠ Innovation

We use a lot of words interchangeably in conversations. If we use something long enough to stand-in for something else, and if the difference is subtle enough, eventually people will come to accept the interchangeable meaning.

In recent conversations, I noticed people use innovation to mean coming up with new ideas. We “innovate” to come up with new products or services. “Innovation” changed the industry. In almost every thesaurus these two words (innovation & invention) are listed as synonyms. But, there is a subtle difference.

Invention is a leap of faith. It represents a unique idea so different from anything else that even the Patent Office agrees it’s yours. Innovation, on the other hand, is the process of bringing your invention to market with the goal of changing human behavior to lead to mass adoption.

The telephone is an invention. Your use of the telephone every day to call your grandma - instead of sending a letter - is innovation. The iPhone as a device is an invention. Your addiction to it on a daily basis is innovation.

The difference between invention and innovation is the degree to which human behavior changes. It’s the difference between a new “thing” and how much that new “thing” affects the people around you. In startup land, this is the idea vs. effective execution.

This subtle distinction makes a huge impact in world of UX, CX, Service Design, and Design Thinking.

Clients want earth-shattering, new, and shiny ideas that will give their products or services a “competitive edge.” That’s invention. The smart ones come looking for strategic ways to change human behavior through iterative, human-centered, incremental trial & error processes. That’s innovation.

How Long Does It Take to Get Started with a Design Thinking Partner

You’ve done your research, and you know the best way to generate and test ideas for innovation is to take the human-centric approach Design Thinking brings. You’re ready to find the best Design Thinking partner for your team, but before you can secure the necessary resources you need to answer one key question for yourself and for your management team:

How long will it take to bring on a Design Thinking partner and get the work started?

As with many design based questions the short answer is “it depends”. As many of you are aware, there are often multiple moving parts which need to align when trying to get any effort started. With so many different variables to keep in mind, it’s impossible for us to give you a concrete answer that will apply to all scenarios.

Instead, we’ve examined the stages (and overall timing) our clients go through when trying to secure a Design Thinking partner. Typically, these are:

  1. Research: There is a lot happening in this stage. You are taking all the actions necessary to find potential partners (searching online, reaching out to your network, etc), and you’re also considering what criteria the potential partner will need to succeed when working with your team. In addition, you’re starting to gather information you’ll need to secure management buy-in, finalizing the details of the internal team who will work on the project, and defining high-impact project constraints.

  2. Outreach: At this point you’ve found several potential partners to follow up with and interview. While evaluating these partners against the criteria you set in the Research stage, you’re also communicating project status with your management and internal teams while further defining project goals & success factors.

  3. Partner Secured: Now it’s time to check potential partner references, introduce candidates to management and the internal team they’ll be working with, get the legal contracts together,  and negotiate and sign the papers.

  4. Onboarding: The contracts are signed and the team is sold, you now need to download any company and industry information to your new Design Thinking partners. This is also a heavy logistics phase. You’ll need to secure meeting space, travel, and gather workshop materials.

  5. Project Kickoff: Finally, it’s time to get started! All the resources are in place and the teams are ready to go. As you ensure the teams understand the process, you plan on being heavily involved and continuing to update your management along the way.

Depending on many factors (the speed of securing internal resources, the number of players who are involved, any other company politics at play) we’ve seen this process take a minimum 3 months and sometimes last for a year or more.

So, the question remains: how can you make the process more efficient?

You can’t control others. What you can do is be as prepared and informed as possible, and take action in the above stages wherever you do have control. Here’s a list of steps we’ve seen others take to speed up the start of a Design Thinking sprint:

  1. Research and learn more about Choosing a Great Design Thinking Partner. Doing this can help make your research and outreach phases much more effective.

  2. Learn more about Selling Design Thinking to Management in order to gather the proper information and have it ready when the time comes.

  3. Figure out who from your organization should be included and start reaching out to them as early as possible. This can help decrease internal team on-boarding time.

By taking control of the areas you have influence over you tip the scales in your favor in regards to lessening the time it takes to get started with a Design Thinking Partner. You won’t be able to change everything and everyone, but you will be able to better set yourself and your team up for success.


We’d like to hear from you!

What’s been your experience in hiring a Design Thinking partner? Was the process you went through different? Are there steps or insights we didn’t mention hear that you think are important? Please let us know in the comments!

Selling Design Thinking To Management: Metrics to include in your pitch.

In selling the idea of Design Thinking to management, it’s often helpful to back it up with some research. However, as Jeanne Liedtka points out in Exploring The Impact of Design Thinking in Action, “rigorous academic research in scholarly management journals on the impact of the methodology on organizational outcomes remains scant, though anecdotal data is plentiful concerning its ability to improve outcomes when innovation is the goal.” 

Forrester recently did a comprehensive study of the impact of Design Thinking at IBM. We’ve found that the “numbers-heavy” results are useful in getting reluctant management teams on board. Here’s a summary:  

1. Project teams doubled design and execution speed with IBM Design Thinking. Profits from faster releases combined with reduced design, development, and maintenance costs to deliver $678K per minor project and $3.2M per major project, for $20.6M in total value. 

  • Organizations slashed the time required for initial design and alignment by 75%. The model demonstrates cost savings of $196K per minor project and $872K per major project.

  • Project teams leveraged better designs and user understanding to reduce development and testing time by at 33% This equates to cost savings of $223K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.

  • IBM’s Design Thinking practice helped projects cut design defects in half. Projects were more successful in meeting user needs, thereby reducing design defects and subsequent rework to save $77K per minor project and $153K per major project.

  • Faster time-to-market enabled increased profits from net- new customers and the higher present value of expected profits. Faster time-to-market increased profits by $182K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.

2. Human-centered design improved product outcomes, reduced the risk of costly failures, and increased portfolio profitability. Refined strategic prioritization enabled investments in solutions that were less likely to fail. Better design increased average product profits. IBM helped expand design thinking at the organization over three years to penetrate one quarter of the entire portfolio, enabling $18.6M in increased profits.

3. Cross-functional teams collaborated to share problems and find solutions, reducing costs by $9.2M in streamlined processes. 

Additionally, data from sixty survey respondents provided the following notable insights: 

  • Improved collaboration and business strategy drove increased customer experience and sales, streamlined processes, and reduced project labor.

  • 72% of IBM clients utilize design thinking in most or all teams

  • 52% of survey respondents associated IBM with design thinking

Likewise, the study details benefits hard-to-quantify, yet clearly visible, benefits:

  • Encouraged an empowered, engaged, and happy workforce.

  • Perfected internal processes for HR, sales, and beyond.

  • Enhanced KPIs such as UI, UX, CX, NPS, and brand energy.

And, finally, since management folks always appreciate a cost-benefit discussion, the interviewed organizations experienced the following risk- adjusted costs: 

  • Internal labor and IBM fees for projects totaled $6.8M, driven by distinct costs of $159K per minor project and $1.5M per major project.

  • Transformation costs reached $5M in IBM resources and internal labor.

  • Training incurred costs of $218K in IBM facilitation and internal labor.

  • Forrester’s interviews with four existing IBM clients, data from 60 survey respondents, and subsequent financial analysis found that a composite organization based on these interviewed organizations experienced benefits of $48,360,958 over three years versus costs of $12,045,247 by engaging with IBM’s Design Thinking practice, adding up to a net present value (NPV) of $36,315,711 and an ROI of 301%.

And, the of course, there is the Design Value Index (DVI), an investment tool that shows companies that integrate design thinking into corporate strategy can outpace industry peers by as much as 228%.

We’d like to hear from you!

What’s been your experience in getting management on board with Design Thinking? Are there steps or insights we didn’t mention hear that you think are important? Please let us know in the comments!


Selling Design Thinking to Management: What worked for us

Getting executives on board with design thinking can be an exercise in patience. 

Think of it as teaching a class. How would you explain to a classroom full of five year olds what design thinking is and how it can help them get more chocolate? More importantly, why this method over something else?

For starters, we like using this Venn Diagram to explain how Design Thinking fits into the larger picture of innovation in an organizations. It’s vital for management to see that you’re thinking bigger picture. 

As you narrow down to details, it’s helpful to break down the mystic barrier of Design Thinking into practical steps. There is no shortage of beautiful visuals out for you to use (here's an example). The process has its variations, but the general framework is fairly constant. 

That takes care of the what & how. 

The lynchpin is the why. Why do they need to pay attention to this method over their current mode of problem solving? In other words, what’s the benefit? 

Here are a few benefits of design thinking we've seen resonate: 

  • increase in revenue over time as products & services ideas are deeply rooted in customers’ actual (vs. speculative) needs

  • reduction in costs over time as validated product ideas are likelier to be more profitable

  • cross-functional ideation as a key component of the method brings about better ideas, eliminating homogenous group-think

  • application beyond R&D; any team can use this process to solve business (and even life) challenges and/or as team-building sessions.

  • Design Thinking improves organizational innovation outcomes by producing higher quality solutions

  • Design Thinking improves innovation outcomes by reducing the risk/visibility of failure

  • Design Thinking improves outcomes by improving the likelihood of implementation

  • Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by improving adaptability

  • Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by the creation of local capability sets

  • Design Thinking and co-creation isn’t a fad, but rather a new way for all problem solvers to put the user at the center of a problem to develop solutions from the outside in rather than the inside out.

We’ve also found it helpful to keep a regular schedule of updates flowing up the ladder for continuous buy-in. Updating executives on progress, letting them listen or view recorded user sessions is one of the most effective ways to get support.