Thoughts from Michael Mace (VP of the Center for Human Insight) and Janelle Estes (UserTesting Chief Insights Officer) on the human insight movement.

We’ve both been in business long enough to remember the traditional means of collecting insights on customers:

  • Surveys were conducted over the phone, with months required to program them and more months required to tabulate and analyze the results. We pored over hundreds of pages of crosstabs printed in six-point type. At one major company where Mike worked,1 we did a single massive tracking survey every year, and good luck to you if your key question didn’t get included in the survey.
  • In-person interviews were so expensive that companies rarely did them. Janelle recalls from her consulting days that the most progressive companies did interviews once a quarter, while most companies did them once a year or not at all. Companies that were really ambitious (and rich) set up an onsite lab and brought customers into it. That required a full-time logistics person, and it meant you were getting feedback in only a single city. Oh, and far too often the interview subject didn’t show up.
  • So instead of interviews, we did focus groups: group interviews, usually in a city somewhere that we thought was demographically average (inevitably you’d hit St. Louis, Atlanta, and Indianapolis). You worked out of a hotel during the day, and in the evening you sat in the dark behind a one-way mirror, eating stale pizza and peanut M&Ms, and whispering about whether to remove one of the participants because they were talking too much.

That process was adequate back when companies moved in yearly planning cycles. But the rise of online software and digital marketing dramatically increased our ability to complete projects quickly. Analytics and online surveys also let us gather statistics on customers in real time. The result was agile,2 a business philosophy that focuses on rapid experiments and validation through customer statistics.

But on the road to agility, we lost touch with the human side of things. In most companies, our ability to understand customer emotion and thinking is stuck back in the interview and focus group era. This pace of human understanding is far too slow to include in agile planning cycles. Efforts to speed up that understanding have been mostly unsatisfying:

  • Although analytics tell you what customers are doing in extreme detail, they can’t tell you why they’re doing it, what they want, and how they’re feeling. So when you spot a problem, you’re not exactly sure how to “fix” it.
  • Surveys tell you what people say, but like analytics they don’t give you insights on thinking and motivation.
  • Social listening tells you what fanatics or detractors are saying in social media, but it’s subject to huge self-selection biases. Normal human beings are drowned out in social media.
  • Customer relationship management systems allow companies to store a bunch of data about their customers, but that data is often a reflection of how the company thinks about their customer base and does not include a deep understanding of who their customers are at a human level.

As a result, companies today make most of their customer-facing decisions (including both product and marketing) with little or no fresh insight on customer thinking and emotions. Instead we learn by experimentation: Try something, see if customers respond to it, then try something else. We call it failing fast, but what it really means is learning through blind guesswork.

In surveys,3 marketers, designers, and product managers told us that they don’t do any customer validation for 60-70% of their deliverables. Most of us are guessing most of the time. That adds up to an incredible amount of business risk.

Failing fast is far more efficient than waiting for old school market research, but it still means that we’re accepting a lot of failure in the form of wasted sprints, engineering rework, and failed marketing programs. 

There’s a better way. 

Crowdsourcing and web video platforms now let you get real-time insights on how customers think, feel, and react. They give you the benefits of focus groups and interviews at the speed of the fastest digital business. This power is increasingly accessible to people who aren’t formally trained to do interviews or focus groups, thanks to AI and improvements in user interfaces. The net result is that it is now easy for anyone in a company to gather customer feedback before making a decision. Every choice we make can be customer driven. There’s no longer any excuse for guessing.

“Human insight” is the term we use for this transformation in business decision-making. It’s not just a new technology, it’s a new way of working. Like any transformation, it takes time and cultural change. It’s not a product, it’s a change in workflows, motivation, and habits. It’s a journey we’re taking together. 

The Center for Human Insight is dedicated to helping you along that journey. We’ll help you learn how to gather human insight, how to explain it to your company, and how to apply it to your own work. Because this is a shared journey, you can also contribute to it. We welcome your comments and submissions.

Together we’ll transform the way companies relate to customers, making our businesses more successful and our customers happier.

What’s your perspective? Please share your thoughts below.


  1. Okay, it was Apple.
  2. Although the term “Agile,” when capitalized, is used to refer to digital engineering processes, a similar evolution happened in online marketing at the same time. We’re using “agile” in that broader sense.
  3. In particular, UserTesting’s annual CX industry survey, which Janelle and Mike supervise. We’ve seen this issue up close.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of UserTesting or its affiliates.