Taking to the Field

Some things are easier said than done.  In fact most things probably are. I was reminded of this maxim last week as I ventured outside the comfort of our classroom and on to the streets of Nakuru with a group of participants hoping to speak with potential customers.

Customer research is at the heart of our programme. Between every session groups are expected to challenge their ‘boardroom assumptions’, reworking proposed products or services based on evidence from those people who they expect to pay for them. After six weeks of repeating and reframing the same argument, I could hear us saying “now you need to go away and test” in my sleep. I initially decided it was probably good to have the idea so deeply ingrained in my thinking. But without really noticing, the phrase had also begun to lose meaning. That was until this recent foray into the field.

To begin with the experience was quite liberating. Having theorized about the importance of developing “a deep understanding of client needs” to more than eighty young Kenyans, I enjoyed seeing some of our work put into action. But it was also really interesting to be reminded of how difficult conducting this kind of research often is, particularly outside of controlled settings.

So, for example, I had forgotten (or conveniently ignored) how daunting it can sometimes be to approach a total stranger with questions about their values, beliefs or patterns of behaviour. For a number of participants this first step was the most challenging, long before we could begin to consider the content of conversations (our primary focus in classes).

It was also incredibly encouraging to see how well groups adapted after a shaky start. One of our main difficulties was getting participants to remember the key points from conversations. They were so focused on asking the ‘right’ questions that the substance of customer responses often got lost. The group’s reaction to this challenge was swift and effective; they paired up and split responsibilities for each interview. One focused on maintaining a coherent and informative discussion, leaving the other to concentrate on recording what was said. Problem solved.

I think the most impressive (or brave) performance of the day came from a pair who were tasked with finding out more about young people’s expectations on dates (one of our groups is hoping to establish Nakuru’s first dating agency). Watching them ask why loveless youths were ‘still alone’ was quite an experience.

Some things are definitely easier said than done.