active listening

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.

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/