Does Your Research Use All Five Senses?

One of my favorite clients is a large retailer that hires me for “shop-along” research: walking through the store with customers and asking about their observations and experience. Basically I get paid to shop vicariously.

A few weeks ago, I was designing my screener for a shopping expedition; I wanted to make sure I had people who were familiar with the store, had shopped there recently, and were open to talking about ideas and giving feedback. I also included a question about physical comfort walking around the store; participants would be spending about 30 minutes doing a store tour, and I didn’t want to invite anyone for whom that would be too difficult.

I did NOT, however, think to screen for vision ability, and when I met my six participants at the scheduled time, I realized that one young woman was blind. My initial response was panic: “I can’t include her! She won’t be able to see anything or give us feedback! She’ll feel bad, I’ll feel bad, the client will be unhappy, OH MY GOSH WHAT DO I DO?!?!??”

I paused, took a breath, and went to the only person who could answer this question: Leah, the respondent. I explained what we’d be doing, admitted that I’d never had a blind respondent before, and asked her how I could make it work for her. “Yes, I’m most people’s first blind experience,” she said. (Makes sense, since less than 2% of the population is blind.) “But it’s fine. I have my cane. I’m in this store all the time. Just tell me where to go.”

Leah turned out to be one of the better respondents in that group: observant, thoughtful, and able to express herself clearly. She agreed with the rest of the group that the music was too loud in one section. She explained that in one area, she’d had to switch her grip on her cane to keep it closer because the store was so crowded. She loved the newly redesigned fitting room: “It’s definitely new– I could tell from how it smelled.”

Despite my initial freak out, getting Leah’s perspective was extremely useful to the client. It also made me realize that if companies really want to understand their customers, we need to include ALL their customers in research– not just the ones we think we want.

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