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Stir Up Innovation and Fun with a Customer Day

Running a customer day is a fantastic way to drum up new ideas and build meaningful relationships. Here's how to get started.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr

I would argue that very few things are better than having a 1x1 interview with a research participant. The rich depth of conversation and insight you can reach is unimaginable. Usually, the participant enjoys talking about their experiences and sharing. And it is fascinating to listen to and understand how someone's mind works.

Interviews are my absolute favorite (I am biased), and I often default to them. But what if you could engage even more participants at that level?

And no, I am not talking about a focus group, as I don't believe in that as a sound and reliable methodology.

What I am talking about is running a customer day.

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What is a customer day?

A customer day can have a lot of different connotations, so this is how I define mine:

A customer day is a day (or a few) when customers come into your office and interact with your team in various ways. As a result, your team can better empathize with customers directly outside "typical" research sessions within this space.

When I decided to do my first customer day, I knew it would be a considerable undertaking, but I felt like it was the best thing to do. I had been conducting research at the company for about a year. People were listening, and I was moving the research needle forward.

Many of my colleagues were coming to research sessions. I had initially set up mandatory research hours—the number of hours each colleague has to spend in research sessions per month—but people were now coming on their own and exceeding those hours.

However, I still felt like something was lacking. Since we did quite a few remote sessions (even back then!), I felt like there was a human context the team was missing. Even I was missing it!

So I decided to have a conversation with my manager. Neither of us believed that focus groups were a practical methodology, as they usually ended up challenging to facilitate with two people's opinions shining through.

Instead, we went in a different direction. We decided to invite some customers to our office for the day, where the team could interact with them, and the customers could share experiences. The goal was to get the team to empathize better with and feel closer to our customers—and view them as real people with real lives outside our product.

The first customer day was such a success that we ran them twice a year. At one point, we did a quarterly customer day at one organization. It is a fantastic way to have a great time with your customers, get your team excited and steeped in their experience, and get some interesting feedback.

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How to plan a customer day

I love planning customer days. There is something so exciting about hosting a bunch of customers and getting them to share their experiences with the team. It's the epitome of user research!

While they are a lot of hard work, there are a few things I've learned along the way to make them more manageable. Here is how I plan and run my customer days:

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✔ Brainstorm goals and expected outcome

Before running off and inviting customers in a flurry of excitement, the best thing is to sit back and understand the goals and expected outcomes first.

As soon as the idea popped into my mind, I wanted to go to do it as quickly as possible. But, just like with a research plan, thinking of the goals and outcomes helped me structure the day. Without these criteria, I would have no idea how to measure success or what to plan.

My general goals for customer days include:

  • Help the team better empathize with and feel closer to customers
  • Get feedback on ideas and designs that we haven't yet had the time to tackle
  • Innovate with the team and customers together for the next steps of the product
  • Allow the team to understand better what customers' daily lives are like
  • Gain more clarity on necessary and challenging decisions (ex: roadmap or vision)
  • Have a fun day with customers and opening the teams' eyes (even more) to how user research can help make decisions

Expected outcomes are that colleagues can:

  • Make decisions based on either what to focus on, new ideas, or ideas that need feedback
  • Gain a more comprehensive understanding of what customers are like outside our product
  • Innovate on new ideas sparked from the day
  • More research studies based on new or existing ideas that need feedback

This information makes it a lot easier to plan a schedule that helps you and your teams achieve these outcomes!

✔ Gauge interest

The next step is to gauge interest. Once you write your goals and outcomes and what a customer day could entail, it's time to share it with other people and see what they think.

One note I will make is that if no one at your company comes to remote research sessions, a customer day may not be the best. Since it is a lot of work (and time) to put this together, you want to ensure there is a high level of interest.

One organization I worked at had a low research maturity. I thought a customer day might change that. Unfortunately, attendance was low, and colleagues were checking their email or running out for meetings. Ensure that everyone will be present and excited about the day before planning.

✔ Create a budget

The last—and usually least exciting thing—is to organize a budget.

Whenever I am planning a customer day, I take into account:

  • Incentives for the customers to spend the day with us
  • Catered breakfast (depending on how early you're starting) and lunch
  • Snacks and drinks
  • Any swag for giveaways
  • Materials such as signs, notebooks, pens, etc

Regarding incentives, it depends on your location and the roles you are recruiting. For one customer day, we paid participants $400 each to come for roughly six hours (including lunch). For another study, we paid participants $200, gave them a discount on the software, and entered them into a raffle to win an iPad.

Check with your legal department to see what you can and cannot do, and then fight for a budget!

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✔ Select a date and time range

The first thing I do is select a few dates and decide the amount of time the day will be.

I aim for about six hours (like a full-day workshop), including a lunch break, because this allows for many activities. It also gives time for breaks and for people to have natural and spontaneous conversations.

I've found that four hours goes by way too fast with all I want to accomplish, yet eight hours seems too overwhelming for most. But do what allows you to achieve your goals!

✔ Choose your customers (and numbers)

Next, I plan which customers or segments I will reach out to and how many.

I'll answer how many first because it is more straightforward: it depends on your budget. If you have a large budget, I would recommend inviting up to ten participants, but I try to go no lower than five. That means we can have multiple activities running simultaneously with different participants.

I decide who to invite by sending the list of goals to my colleagues and asking them about ideas they want to explore, the feedback they need to get, and questions they'd like answered. With this information, I can better recruit participants. It's a very similar process to a typical research project!

✔ Decide on activities

And finally, we get to the fun stuff! I plan activities based on the goals of the customer day. So let's put the goals from above into broader categories:

Helping the team better empathize with and feel closer to customersDeep understanding
Getting feedback on ideas and designs that we haven't yet had the time to tackleTangible feedback
Innovating with the team and customers together for the next steps of the productInnovation
Allowing the team to understand better what customers' daily lives are likeDeep understanding
Gaining more clarity on necessary and challenging decisions (ex: roadmap or vision)Tangible feedback

Once you have your three buckets, you can choose activities that best help you achieve those results. Here are some of my favorites.

Deep understanding
  • Customer panel. A customer panel is almost like an Ask Me Anything or fireside chat with your customers. For 45 minutes, your team asks customers about their day-to-day and the product. It’s more of a casual discussion than an interview.
  • Drawing journey maps together. In this session, the team and customer(s) draw the daily journey within the product, identifying any unmet needs and low spots. The team then has a conversation with the participant on how to improve.
  • Product walkthroughs. Kind of a mix between contextual inquiry and usability testing, the customer shows the team how they use the platform and talks through any frequently encountered issues. These sessions are about observing and learning rather than asking.
Tangible feedback
  • Speed usability testing. Speed usability testing is like speed dating, but with prototypes! There are 3-4 prototypes for review, and each participant spends 15 minutes giving feedback before switching to the next one.
  • Roadmap review. Teams present their roadmap to individual participants (or groups of up to two) to get feedback on what makes sense and what is missing.
  • Pain points prioritization workshop. Participants each list their top pain points, prioritize them, and then present them to the group. Once everyone has presented, colleagues can ask questions and follow up.
  • Crazy 8s. Like with your team, you can get customers to do crazy 8s! Using a known pain point or one brought up in the pain point prioritization workshop, lead your participants through the crazy 8s exercise.
  • Method 6-3-5. Participants write down three ideas in five minutes. When the five minutes are up, they pass their sheet on to the next person so peers can build on ideas.
  • What if. Customers discuss ideas they have to improve the product, and your team members sketch their ideas for them. Each idea is then graded and iterated on.

Use the goals and your colleagues to help you decide on the best activities for the day. Of course, you won't get to all of them, so make sure they align with what your teams need most.

✔ Invite customers

After understanding who would be the best to invite, I start the recruitment process. I ask participants over email, but this email isn't like my usual recruitment email.

Within the invitation, I include a lot of context, such as:

  • What a customer day is and what they can expect
  • Why I am inviting them
  • The time commitment
  • What activities will we be doing during the day
  • Their incentive amount
  • A poll to gauge the best dates

I usually send the invite to over 100 people if I want to get ten participants to allow for a 10% response rate. I then have it be first-come, first-serve.

✔ Do a day sketch (don't forget breaks)

Sketch out the day, including breaks and any presentations you might have. For example, here is a general sketch I use for my six-hour customer days with eight participants:

  • 9:30: People arrive
  • 9:30 - 9:45: Last people arrive + breakfast out
  • 9:45 - 10:00: Welcome presentation (introducing the day + schedule) + breakfast
  • 10:00 - 10:15: Refreshments + quick break
  • 10:15 - 11:15: Customer panel (all participants)
  • 11:15 - 12:00: Speed usability testing (4 participants) / Journey maps (4 participants)
  • 12:00 - 13:00: Lunch break
  • 13:15 - 14:15: Roadmap prioritization (all participants)
  • 14:15 - 14:30: Break time
  • 14:30 - 15:30: Crazy 8s (4 participants) / Method 6-3-5 (4 participants)
  • 15:30 - 16:00: Wrap up
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The day of and after

✔ Have signs (including for yourself!)

Make sure there are plenty of signs that point to bathrooms, where refreshments are, and where each activity will be. This includes posting schedules and letting everyone know where they are meant to be and when.

Also, wear something that helps people identify you, so they can easily find you if you have questions!

✔ Send thank yous

After the day, send thank yous to each of your participants. You might have already sent the incentive, but an extra thank you note goes far.

And, if any of your colleagues helped you set up and run the day, thank them too!

✔ Have debriefs with your teams

The last thing on your list is to activate what happened during the customer day. Meet with each of your teams to discuss their findings and assign the next steps. Finally, round up any future research projects from the day and start planning.

Customer days are enjoyable and satisfying. Each colleague has always walked out of them with a fresh perspective and renewed energy. It's a great way to open an organization's eyes to what research can help accomplish. Plus, the participants always enjoy it!

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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