Research Methods for Understanding Consumer Decisions in a Social World

Research That Works

Innovative approaches to research that informs design

A column by Michael Hawley
March 7, 2011

In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that focused on branding, David Edelman articulates how consumers’ engagement with brands is evolving through the proliferation of social media and other digital channels. In his article “Branding in the Digital Age: You’re Spending Your Money in All the Wrong Places,” he proposes a model for consumer and brand engagement titled the “Customer Decision Journey.” This model recognizes that customer experiences increasingly include online components, where their experience of considering and evaluating choices is constantly shifting and, after making purchases, their engagement with brands continues through social media channels.

Edelman’s article goes on to discuss how marketing teams should shift their focus to researching and supporting the advocacy and bonding portion of the consumer engagement lifecycle.

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Although Edelman wrote his article with marketing professionals as the intended audience, I was struck by how similar the marketing perspective is to the goals of User Experience (UX) groups. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the entirety of the consumer experience, so we can make the most informed decisions about online strategy, content, and positioning.

In this column, I’ll first summarize the findings from Edelman’s article, then discuss how we can apply traditional user research methodology to supporting changes in marketing strategies.

Shifting Paradigms

If you are familiar with traditional marketing models, you’re probably familiar with the purchase funnel metaphor, shown in Figure 1. Marketing first makes consumers aware of different purchasing options through exposure to ads and other forms of push marketing. Consumers then start a purchase process by considering a wide variety of options and continually narrowing these options according to their needs and preferences, until they ultimately make a decision to purchase. In the traditional purchase funnel model, the post-purchase experience focuses on use.

Figure 1—Traditional purchase funnel metaphor
Traditional purchase funnel metaphor

In contrast, Edelman’s Customer Decision Journey model recognizes the role of digital channels and social media in marketing today. With the customer reviews, discussion forums, and other means of sharing information that are now available online, the purchase process has become more dynamic and cyclical and is more subject to the influence of others. Edelman’s Customer Decision Journey still includes consideration and evaluation phases, but the nature of those phases is different: consumers continually add and subtract options as they do research online.

Additionally, his model suggests that the kind of information consumers seek is changing. Consumers are more likely to seek out and trust information from other consumers rather than form their opinions based on the information marketers push to them.

Figure 2—Edelman’s proposed Customer Decision Journey
Edelman’s proposed Customer Decision Journey

The cyclical nature of the Customer Decision Journey also includes activities that occur after a sale. Different from the traditional model, the post-purchase period includes a “loyalty loop,” in which consumers engage in a dialogue with the brand and contribute opinions and information about their experience. While not every consumer participates in content contribution, those who do may demonstrate a deep connection with the brand and have the ability to greatly influence other’s perceptions of it. When they do contribute, consumers post reviews, ask questions, and share their experiences through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and discussion forums.

The Role of User Experience

So what’s the importance of all this as it relates to UX professionals? After all, it is not a revelation to state that customer reviews and social-media mentions have more impact now than they’ve had in the past. What’s important is that this Customer Decision Journey model provides a framework that enables? marketing, research, brand, design, and content professionals to focus their efforts. It is one thing merely to say that social media and post-purchase engagement with the brand is important; it is quite another to say exactly what the specific tactics and content efforts should be for a given company, in a specific context. For example:

  • How should a company design their Web site and other properties they own given the experience consumers are having outside these channels?
  • What topics and information should a company contribute to customer-created channels, if any?
  • Given all of the various touchpoints a customer has with a company’s brand, which are most important and should receive the most attention and resources? ??

Understanding the entirety of a person’s interactions with a product or service is what UX professionals are trained to do. Thus, we are well-suited to contributing to our organizations’ collective understanding of the loyalty and advocacy portions of the customer engagement lifecycle.

UX professionals have a vast toolkit of research techniques they can leverage to help their teams understand the current state of the customer journey and the experience to provide insights into how to leverage specific channels. Additionally, positioning this research within the context of a greater customer experience plan gives UX professionals a framework that lets them work closely with marketing, brand, and strategy teams and potentially have a greater impact on an organization as a whole.

User Experience Research Techniques for Loyalty and Advocacy

To research consumer behavior, the natural inclination of UX researchers may be to turn toward trusted, reliable methods that have worked well for other purposes. However, for a number of reasons, these techniques may not be the best choice—for example:

  • usability testingWhile task-based usability studies are good for finding usability problems that we can fix, they are not as good at uncovering customers’ attitudes or their long-term decision-making process.
  • focus groupsAlthough competitive Web site evaluation through triading or other means can perhaps give a bit more insight into how a consumer would leverage different sites, the data is limited to the sites you include in your study, and there is still an emphasis on task completion.
  • ethnography—While ethnographic research reveals similar insights about the Customer Decision Journey, the observational nature of ethnography is difficult to maintain over the long lengths of time necessary to evaluate decision making, and this approach doesn’t consider the specifics of participants’ decision-making process.

Fortunately, there are other familiar techniques user researchers employ that are a good fit for researching the Customer Decision Journey. While these methods are not new, if we refine them to focus on a consumer’s experience throughout a decision journey, they become powerful new tools. Techniques that are useful in researching consumer behavior include the following:

  • cultural probes, or diary studies
  • unguided experience observations
  • social-media monitoring

Extending UX Research Through Cultural Probes

The cultural probe technique addresses the challenge of studying a process that takes place intermittently or over a long period of time. UX researchers brief selected participants on the objectives of a study, then give them a kit for recording their actions and thoughts. Also known as diary studies, cultural probes include periodic follow-up interviews, during which the researchers review kit materials and ensure participants are collecting the right type of data.

There are a number of resources available in the user research literature on cultural probes, or diary studies. If you’re using such studies for research focusing on customer purchase decisions and the influence of social media channels, the diary kit should include explicit sections for?capturing the social-media sites participants visit, the product reviews they read, and other resources participants consider.

The key to this type of research is to make it as easy as possible for study participants to record their activities. In a recent consumer decision-making study, I asked participants to record any thoughts, activities, or comments, using the voice recorder on their phone, then gave them a simple worksheet to record the Web sites they visited, social media channels they used, and searches they performed relating to a product purchase. Participants appreciated the simplicity and ease of use of this data-capture method.

Observing Unguided Experiences

Similar to traditional usability testing, unguided experience observations involve inviting participants to a laboratory or controlled environment and observing their behavior. However, what is different for this application of the technique is that the moderator does not provide a series of tasks participants must complete using a defined set of designs or prototypes. Rather, in these unguided experience observations, researchers direct participants to use all of the information available to them on the Internet to make the best purchase decision possible. As participants explore and search for information that they think will help them, try to limit your interruptions and probing questions.

Through the course of participants’ navigation and exploration of the Web, researchers record and note various searches, how much time and attention participants pay to different Web sites, and their overall strategy for product research. Following participants’ explorations on the Web—which may vary in duration—researchers then ask participants a series of questions, with the goal of understanding their motivation for various steps in the process.

The advantage of this method is that researchers can observe participants’ experiences directly as they explore the full breadth of resources available to them on the Web. Additionally, by inviting participants to a lab, the researcher can complete a study using unguided experience observations more quickly than using cultural probes, and thus, complete their data capture more efficiently. The obvious drawback of this approach is that the research may not consider how a consumer’s mind can change throughout a lengthy decision-making process or be influenced by friends and colleagues over the course of time.

Monitoring Social Media

Social-media monitoring provides another way of researching and learning about the Customer Decision Journey by listening to the people who are most highly engaged in social-media circles—whether for good or bad—the influencers. Although the social-media monitoring approach doesn’t involve actually interviewing influencers or engaging them in usability lab exercises, it does give user researchers a real-time view of how the purchase cycle plays out, what types of information contribute to consumers’ final purchase decisions, and the overall level of trust consumers place in particular information channels and individual content contributors.

To start, get an idea of the social-media landscape and identify where you need to be listening. Think about what channels—Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, blogs—are most active in relationship to your particular product space and, therefore, most pertinent to your research. Identify relevant keyword phrases and search terms; they can help you ferret out the most important chatter.?Free engagement tools and platforms like Hootsuite and TweetDeck can help you monitor and listen to conversations in real time. Regular monitoring of your target landscape gives you a feel for the level of pull social media—a relatively new addition to the decision journey—has on a community and the overall ebb and flow of the conversations surrounding a brand, topic, or trend.

Where do you find the influencers? You’ll definitely see them pop up as the most active participants in your overall product landscape, but you can use some additional tools to help you do the digging. Sites like can help you find passionate users, as can the Twitter suggestion engine and Facebook search. You can identify influence by numbers of posts and followers. Also, look at individual posters with an eye to how many people like their comments. Social-media monitoring tools like Radian 6 let you view influencer values they’ve assigned to particular people and, based on a series of metrics, even grade particular posts as positive or negative for the brand. Setting up alerts on sites like delivers influencers to your inbox.

The main reason for identifying influencers is to figure out what they are talking about. These content themes can be crucial to informing site-content decisions, brand-messaging initiatives, and even internal organizational and marketing decisions. The greatest benefit of the social-media monitoring approach is that you have an infinite pool of research subjects who you can observe while they are in the midst of the Customer Decision Journey. You aren’t asking interviewees to walk through what they would do; you are experiencing what they actually do in real time.


It’s no secret that people’s purchase decisions are more highly influenced by social media and other digital channels now than ever. As the social-media landscape continues to evolve, UX professionals should adapt their existing user research methods and develop new techniques that allow them to best understand consumers’ decision-making process in a social environment. By expanding and refining our research toolkit, we can position ourselves as partners with marketing organizations and social media specialists to deliver customer insights that inform specific UX initiatives. 


Edelman, David C. “Branding in the Digital Age: You’re Spending All Your Money in All the Wrong Places.Harvard Business Review, December 2010. Retrieved March 4, 2011.

Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow Media Solutions LLC

Adjunct Professor at Bentley University

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Michael HawleyAs Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow, Mike brings deep expertise in user experience research, usability, and design to Mad*Pow clients, providing tremendous customer value. Prior to joining Mad*Pow, Mike served as Usability Project Manager for Staples, Inc., in Framingham, Massachusetts. He led their design projects for customer-facing materials, including e-commerce and Web sites, marketing communications, and print materials. Previously, Mike worked at the Bentley College Design and Usability Center as a Usability Research Consultant. He was responsible for planning, executing, and analyzing the user experience for corporate clients. At Avitage, he served as the lead designer and developer for an online Webcast application. Mike received an M.S. in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley College McCallum Graduate School of Business in Waltham, Massachusetts, and has more than 13 years of usability experience.  Read More

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