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3 key things that put the X in experience

Nikki Lavoie EVP, Innovation & Strategy 24 November 2022

Whether you talk about customers, users, shoppers, employees, or partners, few elements are as central to the research we do as that of a person’s experience.

The Oxford dictionary provides one definition of experience as “an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone,” and, as researchers, product or brand managers, our job is to understand—with precision and context—exactly what kind of impression our brands, products, or services have on the people who interact with them.

Quantitative data can tell us what happened and when, who was affected, or how much of something was a part of the overall experience. However, context, emotional impact, and the comprehensive impression that something has had can really only be uncovered via dialogue, and that’s why qualitative research lies at the heart of understanding someone’s experience. 

An experience is the literal and figurative X Factor: the variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome. So what are some of the key things to think about when trying to understand what someone’s experience has been? Here are a few themes to consider:

1. Your biases

Everyone has different lived experiences and these have crafted us into the people we are today. Understanding this is a fundamental aspect of good research: as you acknowledge that no two people have had the exact same experience, you give yourself permission to listen openly to the person you’re talking to.

Knowing your biases also means being aware of your potential heightened knowledge and understanding of the topic being discussed. For example, if you have worked closely with the product designer who designed the new feature you’re testing, be aware that you know the ins and outs better than the average user, and are likely to talk about it using jargon and other words that people who aren’t as close to the feature would not use. Use this as an opportunity to learn a new lexicon about your features by listening to your users.

2. Let them lead

You’re doing research because someone, somewhere, has a need for a specific set of questions to be answered. Obviously, this means that you’ve got to guide the conversation with your users in a way that ensures those topics are touched on, and that you get feedback as thoroughly as needed to make decisions.

However, there is much to be learned about experience by allowing your users to lead the way. For example, instead of asking a user to perform a “shopping task” on a website designed for purchasing a product of interest, try asking them to talk you through the steps they’d take if they landed on the page. You may learn about barriers to purchase that are linked to your new feature, but that happens at a different stage or point in the process than you had been expecting.

3. Remember your power

One of the things researchers tend to forget—especially after working hard to achieve rapport and empathy with their participants—is that they still maintain a significant amount of power in a research scenario. Remembering that you hold knowledge and information that your participants don’t, that they are often participating in the session both due to intellectual but also financial interest, and that you will have many many interactions like the one you’re having in this session but your participant will have only this one and will go back to their lives… is a checklist that plays no small role in ensuring that you treat every participant like their experience is unique and valuable.

Thinking proactively about your power can help you to try and empower your participant accordingly. What do they need to respond freely? What do they need to feel thanked for their participation? What setting or situation does the research need to take place in to ensure your participant’s safety and mental health?


These three themes are a great place to start and a fantastic foundation to build your research practice on. If you need more inspiration, take a look at our 12 Principles of Agile Research or if you need to connect with audiences from all corners of the planet, delve into our 13 Golden Rules of Global Research.

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