Human-Centered Research Beyond Buzzwords

by Batukhan Taluy, General Manager, Uservision, Istanbul, Turkey, batukhan@user.vision
Batukhan Taluy, General Manager, Uservision

Companies frequently conduct brand research to find an edge in already crowded, innovative industries. This is one of the most provocative challenges for research to help solve.

The conundrum here is that if you ask the same questions your competitors ask, you will get the same results; yet, when writing a research brief, some clients are firmly focused on the same “big topics” of their industry, just like their competitors, or what they have always done in the past. Lack of communication across departments, corporate bureaucracy, and fear of doing something out of the ordinary are all common culprits when tight research briefs hinder lateral thinking. Consequently, the research ends up answering rigid questions that may reveal just the tip of the iceberg, or worse, are irrelevant to consumers.

Our company, Uservision, is a tech-based research company that builds frameworks and technologies to understand humans more holistically. As a new-age insight consultancy, we evangelize “human-centered research,” an approach promoting empathy by understanding people’s context, perceptions, and needs. To that end, instead of solely asking questions focused on a certain topic, we ask questions surrounding the topic. We detect motifs around the topic and try to understand the relationship between recognized motifs, even if they may seem irrelevant to the original research question. Just like a spiral, we get closer to the core research question, layer by layer, diving deeper into the life of a consumer.

Our Approach to Human-Centered Research

While the general direction in the research industry is to advance from traditional methodologies to non-traditional ones, we made a reverse discovery. Our qualitative journey started with user experience research and usability testing for digital mediums. However, we realized that understanding digital interactions was not enough to grasp the whole picture; therefore, we dug deeper into traditional market research. As we practice this craft from the bottom up, in every step we mix in other disciplines, such as design thinking, lean methodology, strategy consulting, and agile methodology. Following is our four-step guide for human-centered research that works effectively and maximizes utility.

  1. Understand the Brand’s Strategic Goals

To paraphrase Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.” Understanding the strategic goals of brands ensures that among a vast ocean of data, a researcher can navigate and choose areas to dive into, according to what is relevant for both parties (customer and brand).

To successfully understand consumers, we must help brands ask the right questions first. Sometimes brand clients need a facilitator to organize their thoughts and knowledge and put it into context. We created a checklist that we use to examine the brand with our clients before research begins. These questions often revolve around who the target audience is, why the audience has been selected, what the objective is, why this objective is important to the client, the client’s ideal output, brand KPIs, and short/mid-term goals.

  1. Establish the Relevant Starting Themes

When one adopts the human-centered research philosophy of asking questions surrounding a topic, one is faced with a nearly infinite number of possible topics. To keep this method manageable, we recommend conducting some preliminary research to assist in this topic selection. For example, we rely partly on our own intuition (you can call it educated gut-feeling), but also on preliminary interviews, netnography, ethnography, secondary and previous research/data, stakeholder interviews, and analytics. Google trends, Facebook insights, forums, searching job-specific keywords, etc., are cost-effective mediums to identify this initial understanding.

Here is an example on the importance of the surrounding starting themes. We recently conducted research for a brand that tries to shift Turkish low- and middle-class consumer behavior from shopping offline to online. We researched people’s shopping habits, but also decided to add a series of surrounding starting themes into the mix: hobbies, family time, travel, etc., via a combination of netnography, Google trends, preliminary interviews, and desk research (through available internet data and the client’s existing research reports). When answers were sought through the lens of shopping, the participants mentioned that they were not happy when having to spend too much time shopping in person. On the other hand, when we explored their lives more thoroughly, we realized that these participants do not actually have many hobbies or many family-sharing moments. Consequently, the physical shopping experience had become a significant bonding moment for the whole family. Moving it to digital might not only imply an alteration of their actual shopping habits but also other (negative) implications with respect to shared family moments.

The added starting themes (hobbies, family time, travel) may have initially seemed irrelevant to the original research question: how people shop and how to switch them from shopping offline to online. However, they enabled us to recommend a human-centric strategy that took into account the complexity of people’s lives, including the emotional needs that kept them attached to offline shopping.

  1. Conduct In-depth Interviews in an Agile Manner

As Ray Poynter, chief research officer of Potentiate, depicts in his blogpost on newmr.org, “A Framework for Project Knowledge,” we can divide intellectual knowledge into four areas:

  1. a) Known Knowns (This is the knowledge a researcher should build upon.)
  2. b) Known Unknowns (This is often what a brand asks.)
  3. c) Unknown Knowns (Facilitators and strategists can help brands structure this knowledge.)
  4. d) Unknown Unknowns (This uncovers the gold mine.)

Before research begins, one can prepare for “known unknowns”; however, “unknown unknowns” are only revealed during the research process, hence an agile and iterative approach is needed to capture the most relevant insights.

Agile is a systematic framework to get the most out of the “unknown unknowns” gold mine. Agile research means iteratively acquiring a better understanding, over the course of the research, of both the target consumer segment and how to approach it effectively. After just a single “research sprint” (detailed below), we can create questions that are increasingly relevant to the target audience, self-correct, or even change the methodology entirely. Once we progress into the iterative phase(s) of the research, some of the early themes might be dropped and new ones might be added.

After interviewing thousands of individuals, we have realized that the most cost-effective number for the first research sprint is eight in-depth interviews for each well-defined audience. If you do not have a well-defined audience, you can define one using your gut feeling (again!), available demographic clusters, or by eliminating segments that are less relevant for your current objectives. After analyzing the first eight interviews (and, if needed, adding data from netnography and secondary research), we can decide how to proceed further.

For example, a certain sub-group (demographic, psychographic, or behavior-based) might align exceptionally well with the research objective. In such cases, we let our clients know about this phenomenon and oftentimes continue the research by focusing on that niche specifically. Usually we proceed with iterative sprints, consisting of five new individuals who are part of that niche. Depending on the data we capture, we might continue by conducting another sprint of five within the same segment or move on to find other niches.

These niches could be low-hanging fruit, a great beachhead market, or evangelists for the brand. Understanding relevant niches until the data saturates iteratively is the core principle of human-centric research. Furthermore, contrasting deeper niches with each other provides better understanding of the research topic. Saturation is all about researching until you cannot learn anything new. (As a qualitative researcher, you are probably familiar with the feeling when, at some point, you start hearing the same things over and over again.) How fast saturation is reached usually depends on the industry and depth of knowledge required. We have worked for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands where the market is very competitive; thus, one needs to understand deeper layers and niches to get competitive insights. On the other hand, for clients in financial industries, the data saturates earlier.

  1. Mix in Other Data Points

Last, once the in-depth interviews have revealed relevant themes and patterns, value is added to the research process by bringing in other data points. For example, in a recent project we revealed that a distinguishing factor between two seemingly similar demographic groups was traveling overseas. We asked our analytics consultant to dig deeper into this phenomenon, and she uncovered that these travelers are also avid readers! Mixing analytics data with qualitative data and validating our assumptions, we revealed a very well-defined beachhead market for our client.

As a tech-based research company, we have access to a variety of resources that help us advance the understanding gathered through traditional interviewing. We are currently leveraging natural language processing (NLP) capabilities to automate the coding process and leverage regression algorithms to automatically cluster words into meaningful patterns. With clustering algorithms, these patterns will be clustered into groups automatically, considering not only demographic data such as age and gender, but also an unlimited number of data points.

Understanding Young Women’s Sports Perceptions through Human-Centric Research

Last year a global sportswear brand came to us to understand how they can help young women in Turkey get more physically active. They were looking for a research partner to conduct either surveys or quick focus groups. Instead of solely asking for feedback on this topic, we recommended sixty-minute in-depth interviews with open-ended questions on topics such as:

  • How they spend a weekend/weekday
  • Habits
  • Changes in their life
  • Digital footprint and social media consumption
  • Diet
  • Hobbies
  • Activities (How do they spend their time?)
  • Values
  • Sports and workout routines

Utilizing the agile research method described above, we iterated our questions to get the most relevant story from the participants through every single research sprint. We sourced half of the participants from a very physically active group and the remaining half from a less active group to understand the relative differences. It was fascinating to see how small differences in very different areas of their lifestyles could lead to a much different decision-making process.

The actions the client decided to take were a direct result of a certain aspect of the young women’s lifestyles. As we discovered different areas of their lifestyles, we were able to segment consumers behaviorally and connect their answers with actions. As a side note, some of the participants who had usually not been very physically active mentioned that the questions and the open dialogue made them reflect on themselves and started working out! We consider it a confirmation of the fact that we were digging into the right “surrounding” themes.

Not Always Easy

Applying the human-centric approach in research does come with its challenges. It is not always easy to convince the client of its value. What it boils down to is often explaining to the client, “I am going to talk with the participant for an hour and only in the last ten minutes will I ask about your product, and until that time, I will just learn about their life, goals, and perceptions.” Setting the right expectations from the beginning and explaining the benefits of human-centricity, rather than consumer-centricity, is crucial before starting such a study.

Another challenge is deciding when and if all this extra effort is required. Having a holistic understanding is not always necessary and sometimes might even be overkill. However, when research starts to provide superficial results, a more holistic approach might be the solution.


Human-centered research is a powerful tool for both researchers and brands to better understand a target audience. Some parts of this framework can be used on their own or combined with more traditional approaches to increase the output quality. Incorporated with agile research, human-centered research is a must-try approach for brands to acquire in-depth understanding of defined consumer segments and differentiate themselves effectively.


a) Who is the target audience? Why was this audience chosen? Try to answer the “why” part as honestly as possible. Understand why you have segmented this audience in a certain way. Probe if this is still the best way to segment consumers.

b) What is the aim of this project? Why? The research project could have only one objective. This is what you will craft your methodology around. During research you will most definitely gather insights for other topics. Let these insights lead to other research projects.

c) What are the current KPIs? Why? Understand what will concretely make this project successful. Envision the outputs.

d) How will you measure the outputs? What gets measured? What gets managed? How will you measure the success of the research?

e) What does your brand stand for? What is the vision of the brand? It is essential to keep the brand equity in mind while understanding consumers’ relationship with the brand. You must also keep in mind where the brand is heading.

f) What current data and stakeholder feedback is available? What are known problems/bottlenecks? It simply doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel. Use every single reliable data set that you can gather.

g) What would be an ideal output? When every stakeholder agrees on the same outputs, it is much easier to manage stakeholders and their expectations.

h) How should consumers act, according to the brand? What is the brand’s ideal user flow?

i) How flexible are you? Consider budget, technical capabilities, deadlines, etc.

j) What are the main trends in the market? Understand macro trends to have a better grasp of your audience.

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