A Conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt on Design Research

First Lady and Diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt broke her 56 years of silence this week to talk with me about customer surveys. The conversation below has been lightly edited for brevity.

Kyle Bowen: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Eleanor Roosevelt: I died in 1962.

KB: I understand this must be difficult for you. I contacted you because I’m hoping you can help me understand what you meant when you said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

ER: I can’t claim all the credit for that quote. Samuel Johnson said something similar in 1751, but it’s truer than ever today. That’s why I agreed to speak with you … Every day I get these customer service emails asking me whether I would recommend this or that company to my friends.

KB: I didn’t realize people continue to receive emails after they die.

ER: Oh, yes. The funeral home and cemetery are the worst — It’s a never-ending stream of “How was your embalming experience?” and “Would you recommend your burial to a friend?” Most of my time in the afterlife has been spent flagging emails as spam and unsubscribing from lists.

KB: Awful.

ER: You can’t begin to imagine. So much for “rest in peace” …

KB: You were saying —

ER: These NPS surveys are terribly misguided.

KB: Net Promoter Score

ER: Yes — the ones where the company asks you to rate them on a scale of one to ten.

KB: What’s wrong with that?

ER: Lots of things. Jared Spool has written quite a bit about it, but the thing that bothers me most is that these companies don’t understand that the goal shouldn’t be to have a customer recommend their company to a friend — it’s much more realistic and powerful for a customer to recommend themselves to a friend based on what the company has enabled them to do or who the company has helped them become.

KB: That’s deep. *chuckling* I guess when you’ve been buried for —

ER:  *Groans* What I’m saying is that companies have this unrealistic idea that people go around saying, “Have you heard about company X? They’re the greatest! You should buy their product!”

KB: It’s more subtle than that.

ER: Yes. Let me put it in terms your readers will identify with:

  • A real estate investment company doesn’t just help people buy a property — it may help people become savvy investors. When an investor sits down to lunch with a colleague, he’s able to demonstrate a unique, first-hand knowledge about earning passive income. The company bestows upon him a sense of pride.

  • A historical society isn’t just the keeper of historical archives — it may help someone become an expert on local history. When friends visit from out of town, she can speak knowledgeably about local points of interest because the society has helped her become an authoritative guide.

  • A cinema isn’t a place to see movies. It may be a resource that helps a member feel like they’re a valued part of a community and enables them to demonstrate a level of cultural awareness in conversation with their friends.

KB: It doesn’t sound like people are recommending a company at all in those situations.

ER: Usually, they are not — and that’s ok. That’s what happens in the real world.

KB: But organizations want people to recommend them to their friends. And not every customer wants to become an expert.

ER: True — but the ones who actually will recommend you are the ones who want to become (or be seen as) experts. And even those who aren’t as invested will still come to view you as trustworthy if you’re providing in-depth, authoritative resources in your field. The first thing is to recognize that the best way to get people to recommend you to others is to find out how those would-be experts want to recommend themselves to their friends. How do they think about the domain in question and how do they view themselves in relation to that domain? If they mention your company in the course of that conversation, it’s only because you helped that person develop their own interests in a particular way or acquire some new status — the conversation rarely centers around the company. If it does, it’s often negative.

KB: Net Promoter Score surveys don’t provide insight into those conversations.

ER: No. They can be helpful when you’re trying to get a foot in the door to elicit feedback, but without additional information — like why people choose a particular number on the scale — there’s little actionable data to be gleaned from NPS surveys.

KB: What’s the alternative? If organizations want to figure out how they can enable customers to become better versions of themselves and spark those conversations that may lead to a mention of their company, what can they do?

ER: They should hire you.

KB: Eleanor, thank you for the recommendation, but could we please …

ER: They should start conducting interviews with their customers so they can begin to understand more subtle motivations and desires that drive their habits. Rather than asking questions about the customer’s relationship to the company, they have to paint a picture of the customer’s relationship to the domain they operate within. In the case of a real estate investor, what is the investor’s relation to money and finances? Or what is the relationship to history, place, and community for members of the historical society?

KB: A picture of the customer — like a persona?

ER: Personas can be one expression of the findings, but personas are often rather shallow and are drenched with things like demographic information that encourage bias … These conversations will provide a much richer picture and help them understand the customer journey.

KB: What can you do with all that information?

ER: The conversations can help you become more focused in who it is you’re trying to reach, and they become the basis for hypotheses that they can test within your marketing. You begin writing and designing with an eye toward what people want rather than what you want to tell them.

KB: So, you’ve just been down there in the ground, thinking all this up?

ER: No — I stole lots of this from Kathy Sierra’s talk, Building the Minimum Badass User.

KB: It seems like you borrow a lot of ideas from other people.

ER: I do. *Staring* It’s hard coming up with truly original ideas, isn’t it?

KB: *Shifting in his chair* Thank you again for your time today —

ER: Wait, don’t you include a Likert scale survey at the bottom of every one of these letters?

KB: Yeah, but I do encourage people to share why they —

ER: Fine, fine. But the next time we speak, you’ll be less concerned about what people think of you.

KB: I hope it isn’t soon.

Kyle Bowen