Understanding actual customers' needs through user research

People may rent a car and utilise it in ways you can’t imagine, underlining that businesses need to invest time in understanding how their customers are using their product or service
Elizabeth Meehan

ALL businesses generally believe that they understand why their customers are using their product or service. This is certainly what I found when I queried businesses about this.

More often than not, they indicated a sense of surprise when asked the question. Without exception, or hesitation, businesses answered. When probed a little further, however, many confessed they hadn't engaged in research beyond comment cards or feedback forms on websites.

Speaking with general consumers, I couldn't help but think that they might be a little more than surprised by some of the answers I gathered. In certain instances they were not aligned at all. At all.

Orix Auto rank number two in Japan's rental car industry and for good reason. With an extensive countrywide network, comprising more than 1,000 rental sites and a vast fleet of 66,000 vehicles and 12,000 parking places, cars are readily available. They offer a range of choices from mini to luxury models, and score high on convenience. Reservations can be made by computer and smartphone up to one hour before rental.

Time 24 are another large car rental company in Japan with 1.2 million registered users. They also have a vast network of locations across Japan and their customers can make a reservation online quickly in a few clicks.

The logical assumption would that be that customers who use these car rental services do so to access a car as a mode of transport, effectively to get them from A to B. What other possible reason might someone have for renting a car?

But this logical assumption, however logical, is incorrect for a considerable percentage of their customers. Orix Auto and Time 24 discovered this when they began to notice an increase in mileage records of vehicles that travelled no distance. This discovery forced these companies to investigate what was going on.

What they found was fascinating and unsurprising at the same time. People were renting the car for a whole host of reasons from eating their lunch, to having a nap, to charging their mobile. At approximately £3 for 30 minutes, this is far from inconceivable in Japan, where personal space is at a premium.

The take-away here is that even something like a car rental service can be utilised in ways you can't imagine at first glance. Or won't know, unless you actively take steps to find out from your customer.

It stands to reason that businesses will need to invest a little time in understanding how their customers are using their product or service and why, because the alternative is to assume.

How we live, how we work, how we access entertainment have all evolved beyond recognition. The world has not only changed, but is changing all the time. Our digital dependency and increasing need for convenience will only continue to impact upon how we live our lives. Customers who come from different generations will have experienced the world in completely different ways.

All of which means, sustainable businesses won't be built upon assumptions. This leaves only one way forward, and that's active user research.

Let customers tell you what need you're satisfying through your product or service, and then decide. You never know . . . you could open up a whole new revenue stream you didn't realise was there.

:: Elizabeth Meehan ( trained as a service designer in Milan and has a PhD in sociology from Queen's University. She strives to educate businesses about the changing economy and the challenges this brings.

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