Ashley Greene is the CEO and Founder of Instratify, the user research and customer-driven growth firm for the world’s most innovative companies. She is also a keynote speaker at tech and marketing conferences worldwide, speaking at events such as MozCon, SaaSNorth, Advocamp, and MicroConf Europe. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ashley and chat to her about her experiences, the differences between quantitative and qualitative research, and why some companies are scared of grey area that is user research. Let's dive in:
Sofia: It would be great to start by asking you why you started Instratify. How did you get into working in this area?
Ashley: When I was in law school, I got involved in tech and startups and decided not to practice law. I got really involved in the growth, marketing, and product side of the industry, as I went to business school for my undergrad degree. I worked in this area as a consultant for a few years, which made me realize that my way of always using customer insight to drive growth strategy. I found that interviewing and fact-finding through customer research is a bit like running a friendly cross-examination; something I was innately comfortable and skilled at with my legal background, but hadn’t realized was so difficult (and avoided like the plague) for many people without law, psychology, or research backgrounds.
As a consultant, I was good at helping companies plan and execute growth strategies that worked, but my “secret sauce” was always the user research and resulting customer insights to base smarter product, marketing, growth, and engineering decisions. Yet, I realized effectively harnessing and deploying reliable customer insight seemed to be the thing that companies struggle with more than anything else I helped them with. I was also sick of seeing companies spend weeks, even months, working on the wrong features, when I’ve seen time and time again how a few hours of upfront research could have saved them all that pain, deflated morale, and time of building a feature that wasn’t used. So I decided to build an agency that specializes in helping companies have good, reliable done-for-you research that helped them drive better business decisions across marketing, product, customer success, growth, and engineering departments.
Sofia: Why do you think user research/customer insight was something companies were really struggling with in your experience?
I think because doing qualitative research isn’t as sexy on the surface as building/coding product or running conversion rate optimization tests. Second, even when a company is talking to their customers, they need to make sure the qualitative data is collected and analyzed with just enough rigor so the insights are reliable without spending any more time than necessary. Much like companies currently do with their quantitative data; however, because qualitative data is grey, people seem to be more lost and prone to make decisions off bad data without realizing. Third, even if you have great customer insights, they need to be shared and understood company wide. This is something most companies, even those with a full in-house user research team still struggle with. And it’s why I’m so happy to have players like EnjoyHQ on the market to help us address this problem!
Another thing is the distinction between “talking to customers”, which is a mantra heard often by those practicing lean or agile methodologies, and reliable insights. It's easy to talk to your customers, and it’s a fantastic thing to do, I highly encourage it, because it’s great for building context and empathy. But if you want to get accurate reliable qualitative data and insights, there are certain research practices that you have to incorporate as well. Even worse, I think, than not collecting any qualitative research at all, is thinking you're doing it well and that your insights are accurate when they’re actually not.
Sofia: Let’s talk about some of your clients. I wondered if you could talk about the scenarios in which a business might decide to partner with you?
Ashley: So we work with a wide range of companies. We focus on companies serving SMB or B2C customers. We tend to work with mostly software, consumer products, and ecommerce companies. A great mutual client fit for us is a startup at the seed/Series A level or a more mature company that needs to supplement internal teams. For now, we generally don't work with companies focusing on enterprise markets, that’s a whole different beast.
We do a few types of research, but the thing that we’re really great at is doing user interviews to help companies do “jobs” such as create or update personas/archetypes, segment based on jobs-to-be-done, find an untapped distribution channel, create messaging that converts, or prioritize the product roadmap. To complement that work, we also do remote user testing when needed and some surveying in our sprints. We can also help with some automatic feedback loops, with things such as online chat transcripts. We really work with clients to drive business results in the form of experiments/tests to run based off the findings such as messaging, which differentiates us, and we work to continually evolve our standard practices to making sharing and accessing customer insight company-wide more effective and efficient, as this is the true competitive growth advantage.
Sofia: And how does this fit in with your relationship with the client, and their research needs?
Ashley: We want to work with clients over the course of a long-term relationship, because it works really well for both parties. We become almost the voice of the customer for the client. We want to help companies and leaders drive better decisions with qualitative insight and increased customer empathy. There are three key ways in which we work with clients.
First, is adding a team member/small research team. Clients essentially want to add a team member which is perfect for companies that don’t have an in-house user research team yet such as startups at the seed/Series A level. We also advise these clients on building an in-house team when they are ready. So in this scenario, we’d usually run a research sprint once a month, and provide a constant flow of customer insights. Or, if there’s a specific goal or project that needs to be accomplished that month, we’ll gear the research towards providing evidence for specific business priorities such as redoing messaging if the conversion rate is too low, reducing churn if retention isn’t high enough, or prioritizing the product roadmap between feature A and feature B when feature A and B are big engineering investments .
Another option for clients is when they want to add some extra muscle. This is the case when they already have an in-house research team or a lone user researcher, but they to add research capacity and don’t want the overhead or permanence of a full-time hire or if it’s the latter, they sometimes want external support for more top-level buy in for research. Or in some cases, they can’t find the right hire because user research is an in-demand skill set these days. In this case, we'd run the same type of research sprint, but we typically do it less often because the client doesn’t need quite as much help, usually bi-monthly.
And the last way we work with clients is as a bias check. In this case, there is usually at least one in-house user researcher or team, and they’re already doing great work internally. It’s not so much extra research capacity they need, but they are aware of the organizational biases even the best researchers have (it’s why we don’t even do our own user research when it comes to big business decisions and even the best lawyer on the planet would never represent themselves in court… and yes, ignore what Harvey Spector from Suits does, it would never happen in real life), as well as the office politics that can unduly influence research priorities, which we have some distance from as an external partner. We can provide support to the internal team and insights that are at an arm’s length distance.
Sofia: Perfect. And what are your favourite types of company to work with?
Ashley: I think it comes down to the culture of the company that we're working with. Do they want to serve customers better, knowing it will help them gain a competitive advantage as well, or are they just looking for a growth hacking gimmick?
We like working with companies that value customer insight and know it’s a great business win-win. They grow faster and the customers get served better. If a company has a customer-centric culture already they can work with us to beef up research and get better at driving shared insight across the organisation.
If a company wants to increase their customer-centric culture or just be more customer-driven, I love working with them too. We can do the same research work, but also work with the different internal stakeholders to help make meaningful impact, invoke change, and share customer centric best practices. So I like working with companies who really want advice on how to improve their customer centricity as well.
It’s great for us to work with companies that are already doing user research well, and also those who want to do it better.
Sofia: I’d like to know what you think about people’s mindsets towards user research? In my experience, a lot of people know it would be useful for their company, but they’re resistant to getting external help with it for some reason. How do you break down that barrier?
Ashley: Great question! This is the new keynote I’m working on actually. I think a lot of it comes down to making the connection of just how much business value user research provides much more clear and concrete with case studies and more empirical evidence. For example, a study from 2017 by Price Intelligently suggests that software companies that had 10 customer conversations or more a month had 30% higher annual revenue growth. A McKinsey report that came out last fall showed that companies that invest in user experience and research outperform counterparts by almost two to one on many growth benchmarks. And that’s just two. A blog post we’re working on right now shows how many of the fastest-growing companies in the world’s most pivotal moments relied on user research such as Dropbox’s famous viral growth hack and an early-stage Airbnb got their 8-year product roadmap from early user research and they’ve actually stuck to it mostly.
Lots of studies show there's a strong correlation between growth (which is what everyone's after) and user research. Another reason I think companies don’t do it enough or don't want to do it themselves, is because they’re scared of it. One reason is that customer research does take time and expertise, there’s no way around it. But that’s also why we exist, to help! But there’s a disconnect between seeing the time taken and recognizing the outcome. When I use statistics and case studies, companies start to understand that research is time well spent.
This is because, at the end of the day, business pretty much exists on decisions. Decisions are being made every day: big decisions, small decisions, micro decisions. Everything in business pretty much comes down to your rate of making good decisions, plus a bit of luck and timing thrown in.
You need to have evidence to make those decisions. So if you're missing a big part of that evidence, your decision-making track record across the board is going to be unsuccessful. But if you can improve your decision-making track record, you're going to improve the growth of the company overall.
For example, if you're only looking at quantitative data and you're not looking at the qualitative side, you're missing a lot of evidence you could use to inform those decisions. If you're just looking at quantitative data and you don't have the context about that data, you're not going to be able to make as good of decisions because you're missing that context. Qualitative data gives you context, but also insights about why your quantitative data is happening so you actually know what to do with it.
Sofia: Do you have any advice for people who might want to invest more time and resources in user research, but struggle to convince their organization? Is there a cultural change that needs to happen?
Ashley: The thing with qualitative data is that it’s never black and white: it’s a grey area, and people find it scary because they can’t fully quantify it. So it’s important to understand that there are some limitations on user research. Going back to what I said at the start, it’s a bit like practicing law - people expect there to be a right and wrong answer, but it’s usually more complicated than that. You have to look at previous cases and the context. That throws people. I think people need to get more comfortable with the grey areas.