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Field Reports

How The North Face Captures Context From Elite Athletes

Vanessa Dillof's strategies for engaging hard-to-reach populations, democratizing research and building deliverables for key stakeholders.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

The North Face’s Vanessa Dillof gets a lot done with a two-person team.

And technically, her team is that lean. 

But if you ask her “who’s involved in research,” the numbers start to grow. From brand marketing to product design—her stakeholders build, field, and analyze new studies. And when you factor in 150 elite athletes that review and delight in her insights, it becomes clear that at TNF, impactful research takes a village.  

Vanessa sat down with dscout on a webinar to discuss her Athlete Intelligence project, which aimed to overhaul the brand’s efforts at collecting feedback from their professional customers. She covered a variety of topics, from engaging hard-to-reach samples to weaving in stakeholders. Stream it in full, or read on for three major takeaways.

Match your data collection to your users 

Vanessa’s team needed feedback from their professional consumers (prosumers): professional adventure athletes whose lives—and livelihoods—depend on outdoor gear that meets their exacting specifications. Historically, The North Face relied on email surveys that were both cumbersome for the athletes and not rich enough for the insights teams. She explains:

“We needed a better way, a more useful tool to really reach our athletes where they wanted to be reached. So we chose a tool that we knew that they would have with them at all times: The cell phone was the one thing that would allow us to do that.”

“We do a lot of real in-person ethnographies and that type of work as well, but to get that at scale, to have 150 athletes at once giving us that context, has been super rich and valuable for the team. It just adds another layer to the feedback that we wouldn’t get otherwise.”

Vanessa Dillof

If the feedback collected from users feels trite, stale, or inauthentic, you may have a matching problem. Before your next data collection, brainstorm ways to meet users where they are, how you can make it easy for users to share feedback when and where the experience actually happens. Vanessa’s team found qual research via smartphones both scalable and easy for their athletes. This made for better insights, smarter decision-making, and happier customers. Win-win-win.

Democratize research to build empathy

Vanessa’s two-person insights team is lean…but they still needed humanize the athletes and customers that make the brand tick and meet stakeholder deadlines. Vanessa figured she could start inviting stakeholders–brand marketing, product design–into the dscout platform as a way to reduce the distance between user and decision-maker. She explains:

“Many of our designers were getting frustrated that there was a lot of wear testing feedback coming through and a lot of changes being asked for in the product that we were creating, but they didn't necessarily know the why behind that. This platform really allowed us to change that. They understood the broader context behind some of the feedback that they were getting once they saw that this feedback was coming from real people, with real stories”

Inviting stakeholders into the research platforms used to collect feedback offered opportunities for exclusive insight; they were able to see the raw data, stories, and feedback. This imbued stakeholders with confidence to jump back into the dscout platform and start building projects of their own, scaling her team from the inside:

“Ultimately, I want everybody within the organization that is a key stakeholder to feel comfortable enough to at least start and establish a mission, or to reach out to the dscout team for help in guiding that.”

Building empathy for your users starts with actually seeing them. How can you engage your stakeholders with the work you’re doing beyond deliverables, share-outs, and reports? Invite them along to an interview or ask them to sit silently on a call. Better yet, invite them as a viewer to your research project. Even if they only jump in once, they’ll get a first-hand look at the work you’re doing to surface the user’s perspective. And who knows, maybe they’ll start devising projects of their own.

“[Stakeholders] definitely aren’t waiting for the fancy deliverables by the core person on the team. They're very much in the platform along with us. The deliverables I present are more for the broader organization and for more of our leadership levels. If I'm partnered on a project with a couple of designers, they’re in a platform side by side with me going through and looking at this real time. They're bringing it into their sketch reviews or creative kickoffs.”

    A big thing within our organization is having a story that accompanies your design.

    Vanessa Dillof

    Complete the feedback loop

    If your user group is high-value—whether that’s because they’re enterprise users or a hard-to-reach sample—offering them value in return can engender goodwill and encourage future participation. What does this mean in practice? Vanessa shares each and every deliverable, report, and result with the athlete team, keeping them in the loop about how products and gear will develop and harnessing social proof that others like them are making contributions:

    “We share just about everything. Anything that goes in front of our leadership team around what we’re taking out of the platform, it also goes back to our athlete team. If they're going to take the time to give us all this feedback, the least we can do is make sure they're hearing from us on how we're using it and how we incorporated things. That quantitative summary, the qualitative stuff—I'll send that to the team and I'll say: ‘Look, if I've captured anything incorrectly based on what you had to say, please let us know. The last thing I want to do is use your quote and your name and all of this in a way that you wouldn't stand behind.’”

    You may not be at liberty to share your results with your participants, especially if they’re consumers. But consider sending a readout explaining some of your learnings. Even if it’s high-level, informing your participants how their feedback will improve the experience can only serve to grow the relationship between your brand and them, potentially moving them from regular “users” to “fans” or “evangelists.”

    For more strategies and tips on engaging participants and building deliverables for stakeholders, check out the full webinar— and if you're ready to start building your own research in dscout, sign up for a free account or talk to an account executive.

    Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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