The Mystery of Customer Feedback

It’s unfortunately true that whenever you research a list of “pain points” from customer feedback, those pain points will mysteriously turn out to be mostly – if not entirely – previously known to the business. And they’ve probably known about them for a surprisingly long time.

That sound you hear is the researchers’ crests falling as they realise this sad fact.

One of the things I observe designers and researchers often doing in reaction to this, is to find progressively louder ways to shout at stakeholders about how their customers feel. Verbatims, videos, personas, journey maps with little happy and sad faces on them… If only these stakeholders would “empathise with the customer” then surely they would just do the right thing and fix it all? But that never happens. The same old problems persist.

So why do businesses not act on customer feedback, or at least not with the urgency that many in UX think they should?

What is feedback?

Think of feedback – or more accurately customer complaints – as a side effect of doing business. Other side effects include staff absences, waste disposal, the paying of tax, the auditing of accounts, and PCI compliance, to name a few.

And just as there are people, processes and software systems in place to process absences or prepare accounts for auditing, so are there people, processes and software systems in place for the management of customer complaints. All these side effects are seen as a cost of doing business and are dealt with so that they are not problems any more.

So to jump up and down shouting about top 10 complaints, or about how Mr Miggins doesn’t like the way we do something, is like shouting about the fact that some of our staff are going off sick, or that 12% of our stock is going bad before we can sell it. Why should the business (collectively, that is) react to that? They already know. They don’t see it (again, collectively not individually) as a problem because they are – and always have been – “pricing it in”.

So far, so logical. But why doesn’t the business act on the information it knows about?

What is design?

Designers’ exasperation at business inaction in the face of researched customer pain is also a symptom of a much more fundamental failing in UX: mistaking the work of research for the work of design.

Sometimes, it seems that designers see research as possessing some quality that can by itself produce solutions to the problems it finds. The harder the problem, the more research is done and usually presented in great detail.

But hoping that forcing “empathy” on listeners will perform some solutionary magic is not going to work. And it should go without saying that coming across as if you are expecting people like CEOs or product directors to do your job is also not a good look.  After all, if the business wanted to act on the pain points they mostly know about, they would have done so a long time ago.

Intead, and at some point, you have to do the actual design work.  At some point you need to produce a user interface, interaction design, or some concrete solution. Without those things, your stakeholders will simply push for their own pet solutions regardless of your research. Or worse, just put you down as a time-waster.

But why is UX sometimes so reluctant to provide the design interventions expected of it?

It’s Hard

If I were to guess, I would say it’s because design is hard. At least, I find research far easier. But interpreting the results of research is what counts, and at that point it’s not pleasant being put in a position where you have to predict the future about a design intervention. But that’s what design is.

Look at customer feedback for yourself as part of your design work if you need to,  but to just shout about doing this and listing all the fun facts you’ve found is not going to do you any favours. The work of interpretation  is down to you, on your own or collectively, to make sense of things so that you can come to the business with a solution.

A footnote to this is that the above also explains the fact that  designers sometimes secretly doubt that all the research and journey mapping they did has had much influence on any of the solutions that subsequently get built. This feeling of disconnect is a tell: those designers are probably right. However, what to do about that is a subject for another article.