Observation, empathy, and critical thinking – finding a customer researcher

By: Susann Clifton-Smith
Date: March, 2015
File under: Articles

Although I have been managing teams for five years now, it’s only recently that I have realised how growing up in the East German communist system contributed to appreciating skills that I am now looking for in a customer experience researcher.

You might wonder: “What useful skills can come from a political system invested in propaganda and so little fact? And what does this have to do with customer research?” In the following, I shall attempt to loop the two worlds together.


Living in a system that requires you to be very cautious about what and who you speak to equips you with a very astute sense for observing people. By watching people and asking the right questions, at the right moment, we identify opportunities that help us shape new concepts and ideas. Furthermore, it is the people’s reactions that we collect and translate back to design teams who help to visualise our insights. This process ensures that visual designs correspond to customers’ expectations.


In looking for this attribute in potential job candidates, I was amazed how difficult it is to come by. Empathy is expressed in many different ways – but in our industry, I would determine it as:

  1. The ability to observe people
  2. Develop a sense for what they experience, and
  3. Formulate it for a group of people rather than just one entity.

Empathy is what enables a researcher to make adequate recommendations on designs. The best customer experiences I have come across have been developed by designers and researchers who can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Critical thinking

You probably wouldn’t immediately think that critical thinking is associated with a dictatorship environment. But actually, it is quite innate in people to secure survival.

Yet, in my experience, I have found it fascinating how much more likely I am to query information compared to my younger peers, who are used to absorbing content on social media. Although the digital world empowers us to globally share our knowledge and information, it is surprising how little people use it to learn to reflect, choose, and use multiple sources prior to making a decision.

Having been asked multiple times why I find critical thinking to be such an important attribute in a customer researcher, I realise it’s because I know firsthand how hard it is to live in a society that does not allow opinions other than those that are deemed ‘politically correct’.

Closing the divide

In essence, it is the combination of grasping opportunities at the right time and place, being armed with the right type of information, careful observation of people in multiple environments and a touch of empathy to weigh up our findings that gets our audience to listen to us. But in a society that takes these three skills for granted, unfortunately they can be hard to come by.


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