UserTesting’s Janelle Estes on using human insight to create memorable experiences

People love stories and human connection – it’s just the way we’re built. The insights we extract from those connections give us a peek into who our customers are as human beings, and only by leveraging it can we deliver a truly great experience.

In our rush to accelerate digital transformation, we’ve been obsessed with collecting information. Lots and lots of it. We track every metric, create all kinds of dashboards, and use them to inform our every move. But data, while extremely valuable, can’t tell the whole story. It’s hard to truly understand your customers when you’re chasing that point increase in NPS or to empathize with their problems when you’re spending all day looking at charts on a computer screen.

To see the world through their eyes, to get a feel for their experience, pains, and needs, you need actual human connection. You need to see their faces and know their stories. And that’s exactly why today’s guest, Janelle Estes, is so interested in human insight. Janelle is the Chief Insight Officer at UserTesting, a video-based UX testing service that makes it easy for companies to test their products before launch. She’s also an advisor, co-hosts the aptly named Human Insight Podcast, and is the author of User Tested: How the World’s Top Companies Use Human Insight to Create Great Experiences.

Janelle’s 20-year-long career started as a Customer Experience Researcher at Forrester, but she’s been curious about human behavior – how people think, how they process information, and how they make decisions – for as long as she can remember. And it’s that kind of customer understanding that helps organizations make strategic decisions on what products to build, what features to prioritize, or which channels to market on.

Leveraging customer insight can help your business align around a more holistic, customer-centric approach with actual impact on your bottom line, but that insight can be hard to find. How can you capture it? How do you find the signal in the noise? And, ultimately, how do you take action on it?

In this episode, we sat down with Janelle to talk about the power of human insight, how to scale it throughout your organization, and its role in creating a culture of customer empathy.

Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the conversation:

  • To avoid getting overwhelmed by information, define the key question you’re trying to answer. Then, tie it to a business goal such as reducing costs or increasing customer satisfaction.
  • Our biases lead us to believe our customers are just like us – it’s important to get out of our bubbles and interact with different people to get an understanding of what they’re actually like.
  • When prioritizing what to work on, consider the impact it can have on your business and the customer experience and the effort involved in fixing it.
  • For Janelle, scaling customer insights is less about getting more people involved in collecting it, and more about allowing everyone to easily connect with customer feedback and stories.
  • People are increasingly cautious of how their data is being handled, and it’s getting harder for companies to collect it. Giving users the possibility of opt-in feedback is a great way to avoid it.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

The call of CX

Liam Geraghty: Janelle, you’re very welcome to the show.

Janelle Estes: Thank you so much for having me.

Liam: I’d love to start by hearing about your journey to this point. Could you tell us a little bit about your career background?

Janelle: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been in my current role as Chief Insights Officer at UserTesting for about four years now. Prior to moving into this role, I had different roles at UserTesting, so I’ve actually been with the company for eight years and played in a variety of places, including our professional services team. Also, I started our solutions consulting practice when we were shifting from a transactional sale to more of a solution/enterprise cell and then led our services team for a bit before moving into this role. Prior to UserTesting, though, I was at Nielsen Norman Group, which is a premier UX consultancy run by Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, who are very well known in the UX Experience and Research space. But I didn’t plan to land here.

“How are they bringing the customer into everyday decisions, and how can I take what’s happening and all the best practices and set the tone for the future?”

When I first went to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and this field didn’t really exist in the way it does today. And by this field I mean thinking about customer understanding and empathizing and learning about who your customers are to ensure you’re building experiences that really work for them, that really deliver value and that are, in some cases, delightful. This area has really grown and blown up in the last 20 years. I still think we’re in the early days; we’re just getting started.

When I first stumbled upon this area, I had switched my major four times between Economics and Finance and Accounting and Marketing, and I’m so grateful I found this little niche area because it’s truly fascinating. It’s about understanding how people think, how they process information, how they make decisions and using that information to build experiences that maximize how the brain works. In my role as Chief Insights Officer, a big focus of mine is spending time with our customer base to understand how some of the best and brightest organizations in the world are doing this work. How are they bringing the customer into everyday decisions, and how can I take what’s happening and all the best practices and set the tone for the future? How do we roll all that up into something meaningful? We have such a big opportunity in front of us, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of helping define what this looks like for the next 20, 30, or 50 years.

Beyond data points

Liam: In your fantastic book, User Tested: How the World’s Top Companies Use Human Insight to Create Great Experiences, you talk about how businesses became almost obsessed with data and how that creates a disconnect from their customers. I was wondering if you could talk us through how that shift happened and why it’s not sustainable.

“Instead of connecting with our customers as humans and understanding what they need, we’ve decided to track what they’re doing with a bunch of tools and platforms”

Janelle: Thank you for mentioning the book, I co-wrote it with UserTesting CEO, Andy MacMillan, and it’s something I wholeheartedly believe in, and we really have to be thoughtful about moving forward. When he first created Walmart, Sam Walton walked the aisles with the customers, watching what they were doing and trying to figure out how to build a better shopping experience for these folks. How do I make it so they want to keep coming back to Walmart? And that is really hard to do when the entire world has shifted to more digital experiences. It’s not like you can go walk the hallways of your mobile app.

Liam: Yeah, there’s no direct interaction with customers anymore.

Janelle: Exactly. But instead of connecting with our customers as humans and understanding what they need, we’ve decided to track what they’re doing with a bunch of tools and platforms. What are they clicking on? Where are they dropping off? When you’re looking at a dashboard of your conversion rates for a checkout flow, if I carry through the Walmart experience, you’re going to see a lot of behaviors, and what’s missing is understanding why people are leaving the product detail page or why they’re not completing their purchase.

“I would never ever say data isn’t important. I think it’s just part of the picture”

That’s where this level of human understanding comes in, but to answer your question of how we got here, I think it’s the shift to digital and all of these platforms and tools that help you track what everyone’s doing on your digital properties. But this over-reliance on technology to understand your customers is actually a perfect solution for getting us out of this mess – using technology and platforms like UserTesting to take advantage of technology to do a lot of this work. I’ve spent weeks working on a single project to understand customers, and with some of these tech-powered platforms, you can do this type of work in hours because you’re able to reach people faster. You’re able to layer in some technology, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to understand what’s going on so you can process and get to the insight that tells you exactly what’s going on.

Liam: So, we’re not saying get rid of data. It’s just that we should be smarter about how we use it.

Janelle: Yeah, absolutely. I would never ever say data isn’t important. I think it’s just part of the picture. It’s just part of this whole holistic understanding. You’ve got to marry what’s happening and the data you’re collecting with who your customers are as human beings. When you bring the customer into these conversations, when you show a video of a customer and the team can see their face as they interact with an experience or they give you feedback about something that they don’t like or something they do like, it builds this story for your team in a way you don’t get when you’re looking at a dashboard.

If you think about how the human mind works, we love stories. Our brains eat them up. And so, when you are connecting with a customer as a person, you’re building a narrative in your mind about that person, what they need, and the feedback they’ve given you. This level of insight and understanding pulls the team together. It rallies them around this shared understanding of who the customer is, but most importantly, it fuels and accelerates action. When you’re looking at a pie chart or your NPS score, you’re like, “Oh, I can’t wait to increase my NPS score by one point today as I sit down at my desk,” but when you can actually look at and understand the core issue from the customer’s perspective, you see the story, you relate to that, and you say, “You know what? I’m going to fix that and make it better for everyone.”

Getting started

Liam: Let’s talk about the process of UserTesting and how you go about capturing the human insight within. What steps should people take to start?

Janelle: The whole second part of the book is about if you’ve never done this type of work before. How do you find the right people? How do you ask the right questions? How do you find the signal in the noise, and, ultimately, how do you take action on it? A big, big first part of this type of work is trying to define the question you’re trying to answer. That’s one of the hardest things to do because we tend to think about things so broadly. It’s amazing how much information is thrown at you when you watch just a couple minutes of somebody using, let’s say, your competitor’s experience. And so if you don’t have a key question in mind that you’re trying to answer, it can get overwhelming to the point where you don’t really have a direction anymore. And so, formulating a specific question and tying it to something the business cares about is how this work becomes super impactful within an organization.

“We tend to believe our customers are just like us. That is a cognitive bias we have as human beings. What’s important about this work is you’re getting outside of your bubble”

Let’s say you are looking at understanding whether or not your FAQs on your site are the right content, if they’re written correctly, if people can understand them, and if there’s no content missing. If you imagine that type of work where you send a bunch of customers to that page, they’re walking the aisles of that. Coming back to that and saying, “You know what, we’re asking this question, but ultimately what we’re trying to do is make it so our customers are more satisfied because they’re able to self-serve, but also, perhaps, to reduce call center or chat volume or again, something that is about revenue growth or saving money,” and tying your work to that. So, start with a focus question, tie it to something the business cares about, and ensure that you’re talking to the right people.

We tend to believe our customers are just like us. That is a cognitive bias we have as human beings. We think most people, especially the ones in our closer circles, are like us and have the same beliefs as us. What’s important about this work is you’re getting outside of your bubble. You’re getting outside the people you’re exposed to every day, and you’re talking to people who just aren’t like you. What’s so important about that is that you get to see these new perspectives; you get to see the world through other people’s eyes, especially when you have a general consumer audience. If you work in a tech company, your average customer is not sitting in Silicon Valley downloading every new piece of software or app that comes out, and when we’re surrounded by super tech-savvy people, we tend to have that belief. Go talk to a mom or a dad in Texas trying to figure out how to get their kids back to school or manage summer schedules in light of inflation – you just can’t get that level of depth and understanding unless you go outside your bubble, and that’s one of the key or core components of this.

Liam: I love that because, as you said, it’s just so easy to assume what customers want based on your own beliefs. Once you have all these insights, how do you make sense of them and try and put them into action?

“I take those key issues and use a two-by-two matrix. You look at the impact you will have on your business and the customer experience if you fix this issue and the effort involved in fixing it”

Janelle: If you do this type of work, you uncover loads of things, and you can’t fix everything. I look at it in two ways. How detrimental is the issue to the experience? Is it creating an experience where people essentially have to start over or are they completely disrupted? When you’re watching people interact with something, how jarring is it? Also, how many people are experiencing this? We’ve got lots of data that can pair up with what you might be uncovering, but looking at it, is it just a handful of people, or is everybody running into this problem? And then, looking at the impact on the business, if you’re not fixing this, what does that do not just to the customer’s perception, but also to your business?

Those are some things to consider when you’re looking at prioritizing, and you’ll usually come up with a short list of maybe five to 10 things that need to be addressed. And then, at that point, I take those key issues and use a two-by-two matrix. You look at the impact you will have on your business and the customer experience if you fix this issue and the effort involved in fixing it. Looking at high-impact activities, and depending on your workload and resources, choosing issues that can be fixed with minimal effort and investing more effort in some of the major issues over time can help you take action on the right things to improve the experience and the outcomes for your business.

Scaling customer insights

Liam: There are tons of case studies in your book, from Microsoft to Ericsson. How are some of these leading companies leveraging human insight?

Janelle: I’ll give you a couple of examples. We’ve got great customers who have built this type of insight into everyday workflows and processes where they’re making decisions about what to bring to market, what features to build, or even how to build the next great thing. One of the customers I am fascinated with is the Idea Center at Notre Dame. They are generally fielding a bunch of ideas from the community, the alumni, and the professors at Notre Dame. And they have built essentially a machine or a funnel around how they choose what ideas to bring to market.

They integrate UserTesting feedback into everything they do, from “Is this the right problem for us to be solving,” to “Is this the right solution to bring to market?” And then, ultimately, “How do we build this thing in a way that’s going to resonate best?” They didn’t use this type of feedback early on, but once they introduced it, they’ve seen massive success in the number of startups they were able to launch through the Idea Center, the amount of funding that these companies are getting, and the performance these companies show in the market.

“We’re moving to a place where the customer is integrated into everyday work”

I also want to share another story that is a little bit different. HelloFresh is a global meal experience company, and they’ve been using us for a long time. And they have a team of people collecting this type of insight for different teams within the company, like the product team and the marketing team. They take all the interesting things they learn over the course of a month and build this beautifully curated video show called The Insight Show. It’s a very popular event at HelloFresh, and people tune in every month to see it. When we go back to building those shared narratives and shared understanding of our customers, this is a beautiful way to do it because the team is not asking everyone to go out and talk to customers – they bring the customer to everyone in this curated viewing experience. I love this story.

I want to see many more HelloFreshes in our customer base and in the industry in general. When we think about the future, which is the tone we’re trying to set with the book, we’re moving to a place where the customer is integrated into everyday work. You grab a coffee in your break room and there’s a TV screen with videos of customers reacting to your latest marketing campaign or a new feature you launched, and every time your CEO kicks off the all-hands meeting, everybody can connect with a customer around feedback they recently gave.

We tend to have customer data proliferating throughout an organization, but it’s usually in the form of graphs and charts and sentiment analysis platforms that sit on top of social media feeds, and all of that is super helpful, but imagine if we just reeled it back a little bit and had your customer as a person also proliferating around it.

Liam: It makes such a difference. We’re all about making internet business personal here at Intercom, and recently, at one of our all-hands, we had several customers talking about their experience, and it was just so useful and uplifting at the same time.

Janelle: And memorable, right?

Liam: Memorable. Exactly, yes.

Janelle: A couple of months from now, when you’re thinking about some work-related decision or strategy or direction, you’ll likely call back to say, “Oh, remember when that customer said that thing when they were here? We should really consider that as part of our strategy.” I mean, those types of exposure to customers are priceless.

Liam: And a human insight can be scaled, right?

Janelle: A hundred percent, yes. When I shared the HelloFresh example, that is, in my opinion, an example of scaling. You’ve got a smaller group of people collecting feedback but then pushing it out and broadcasting it to the rest of the organization.

“This idea of bringing more people into the mix scales to a certain point, and I don’t think scaling means we turn everybody into insight collectors”

Right now, there are usually teams within companies that are responsible for collecting customer insight, whether through deploying surveys, collecting user tests, or even looking at data analytics. And when you think about scaling, what ends up happening is that the core group of people starts bringing others throughout the organization onboard. Usually, it’s product managers or designers, or people who are making customer-related decisions. They bring those folks into the mix, train them on how to use the product or platform, and we call that scaling. I think it’s much better than hiring more people to join that insights team because that definitely doesn’t scale. But this idea of bringing more people into the mix scales to a certain point, and I don’t think scaling means we turn everybody into insight collectors.

Through technology, we can actually expose way more people asynchronously to this type of data. Imagine having an empathy feed, and you sit down and grab your coffee in the morning and have the opportunity to scroll through it. I’m just trying to make it tangible because when I talk about it theoretically, it doesn’t really land. I use this analogy and people are like, “Oh my gosh, what are you talking about, Janelle?” But I see a world where, if you think about the way we are consuming information, this pivot to short-form video content with the likes of TikTok and Instagram – imagine having something like that within your organization for your customers.

The future of human insight

Liam: Before we wrap up, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of all of this considering customers are more aware of how companies are tracking and using their data, and legislation is impacting how much companies can collect. What do you think is the future of all of this?

“What happens when you don’t have all that third-party data through the cookies you’re using? You have to find another way to build this understanding”

Janelle: Even if you’re not doing this work today, you’re likely going to need to do it in the future because people are becoming way more aware of how companies are tracking and collecting information about them and they want control over that, and you’re seeing it in some of the legislation that’s being pushed through. When you get that alert on your phone that says, “This company wants to track what you’re doing, do you allow this to happen?” I mean, I don’t know how many people say yes. I think it stops people in their tracks.

The people you’re serving are going to shift the dynamic here, and what happens when you can’t track what people are doing? What happens when you don’t have all that third-party data through the cookies you’re using? You have to find another way to build this understanding, and that’s issue one. The other interesting piece here is this notion of opt-in feedback. Not only are people much more cautious about how their data is being collected, but they also want to be heard now more than ever before. Imagine leaning into that desire to share their perspective and feedback. Imagine giving people the ability to opt-in, to connect with your teams on a regular basis.

I was just reading that survey fatigue is not so much about a survey that’s super long or questions that are confusing, which is a barrier to survey completion, but it’s actually people believing the company’s not going to do anything with the information. That’s actually the number one reason why people don’t fill out surveys. Imagine giving them a different avenue and a way to share and feel like they’re being heard.

“We have so much momentum. Our main challenge is awareness”

Liam: And what’s next? Do you have any big plans or projects for yourself within UserTesting?

Janelle: Yes. I’m super excited because we are pulling together a group of industry experts within and outside of UserTesting to launch what we’re calling the Center for Human Insight. This is a tech-agnostic center that will essentially help teams and organizations build more momentum, more buy-in, and more human insight into their everyday decision-making.

We’re looking at building a movement around this. We have so much momentum. Our main challenge is awareness. I’ll meet with executives and show them a video of people reacting to the last ad they launched, I tell them I was able to get that feedback in an hour, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea this even existed.” And so thinking about up-leveling this a little bit, making it less about doing research and more about connecting with your customers every day and in every place you can.

Liam: And lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you in your work?

Janelle: You can follow me on LinkedIn. I also have my own website,, with all my podcast episodes, information about my book, and a bunch of articles I’ve written, and that will eventually link to the Center for Human Insight.

Liam: Perfect. Janelle, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It’s been a pleasure.

Janelle: Thanks so much, Liam. This has been great. I really appreciate it.

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