User Research

The customer is still king: Staying competitive in the age of AI

24 June 2024 • 5 min read

Customer at the centre of digital environment

Is your customer still ‘king’? This question will prompt a habitual ‘yes’ from many - after all, the world of business raises us to prioritise our customer above all else. But given the constant market pressure to do more with data and to deliver it faster with AI, it’s easy to see why businesses are losing sight of their real, human customers. Of course, there’s no denying that both are great tools for aiding ideation and decision-making, but over-reliance on data and AI is pushing businesses away from human-centred innovation and into a purely transactional mindset.

In this blog, Evelyn Higgins explains why your customer is more business-critical than ever, and how to keep them at the centre of your universe when productivity tools are battling for the podium.


Customer expectations are evolving


If the digital industry set the original bar for great experiences, Gen Z are now raising that bar. This generation makes up 40% of the global buying market, and they’re shopping and interacting with brands in a whole new way. Of course, we’ve all heard about their ‘8 second attention span’ and their 6 hours of daily screen time, but Gen Z expectations go way beyond mobile sites and short-form content. They’re passionate about brand ethics, sustainability and social awareness (and they can spot those that aren’t being genuine, so beware). They’re active multi-channel shoppers, with 55% buying more due to social media. Gen Z has the power (and the means of connection) to create global movements; to make or break brands or products in a few viral TikToks. Critically for businesses, they use that power in ways data could never predict. 


Your data can reveal patterns, trends and engagement rates in Gen Z’s (and every other generation’s) behaviour, but it can’t capture the emotional and psychological nuances behind their actions. You have to listen, connect and be where they are in real-time, consuming the content they’re consuming to understand the movements that drive them. 


The ROI is undeniable - yet businesses are still skipping their customer research

Getting buy-in on a transformation project is really challenging, we see it (and guide our clients through it) daily. And when the green light finally does come from stakeholders, it’s often laden with budget and time pressures that see user research being deprioritised. After all: you know your customer already, why pay and delay getting to the good stuff? But the data businesses typically rely on provides a narrow and often outdated view of needs and trends that are constantly evolving. Assumptions are also made unconsciously, based on years of internal bias and legacy processes. A lack of appreciation for customer research, coupled with over-confidence in the organisation’s existing knowledge, is the reason so many businesses miss the mark of customer-centricity.  

What our clients do find when they invest in user research is that they’re often focused on the wrong thing; they’ve misunderstood the problem or missed the fact it’s a by-product of a different challenge. And that’s great to uncover in the first couple of weeks of a project; it’s a solid starting point to validate your future solutions. Building well means building once, delivering a product that’s been tested and validated throughout to ensure conversion and revenue straight from launch. 

Meanwhile, those who favour short-term gains over long-term customer centricity will feel the negative effects later - when the root problem re-rears its head, or the product no one actually wanted fails to deliver on expected ROI. Getting it right the first time, by investing in early and continuous customer engagement, will always deliver value faster than the shortcut. 

AI is a welcome co-pilot, but talking to real customers is business-critical


The earlier you can test your ideas the better; AI can help with that. With synthetic users, you can simulate user testing and gather a breadth of feedback that would likely be impossible to gain from real users so early on. It’s also a welcome admin assistant later in the research process, taking on time-consuming tasks like transcribing interviews, summarising findings and analysing data. But the real magic happens in between AI’s role, in connecting with your real customers. 

It can feel tempting to skip when budgets are tight, but AI is no replacement for real human research and testing. An algorithm can’t pick up on emotional nuances, body language or unspoken context the way a human researcher can. Nor can it harness these clues to unravel the needs customers themselves don’t fully understand yet. Those uniquely ‘human’ discoveries are what give businesses the competitive edge against AI-reliant businesses. And it’s the human-led decisions that ensure you’re not churning out the same AI-generated solutions every other GPT user has access to: the sum average of the internet. To uncover problems customers don’t yet understand themselves, and to provide unique, creative solutions, nothing compares to human connection. 

Prioritise value over delivering specific features


The benefits of customer centricity are a no-brainer - you’ll build stronger relationships and foster greater trust (critical in today’s data-rich market). Plus, satisfied customers will keep coming back, and they’ll tell their friends to do the same. But what does it take to be truly customer-centric, is it just about user research and validation? Without sounding cliche, it requires a huge shift in mindset. Organisations need to reimagine what their success looks like. 

Customer-centricity is about prioritising value-driven delivery over a big bang. That means; instead of setting your roadmap on day one and getting to work delivering features, you solve customer problems and deliver benefits incrementally. That means checking in little and often, prioritising continuous customer engagement and iterating along the journey. Remaining agile isn’t just great for your customer connection, it improves alignment with your business objectives and ensures you’re not delivering outdated solutions for a customer that has now evolved. 


Keep customers at the centre of AI and data


In an industry powered by AI and data, it’s possible for any business to ship products fast. But winning the race with a product no one actually wants? There’s no medal for that. The real winners in this market will be those who not only respond to their evolving customer needs, but preempt them - and ultimately set the new expectations. That requires continuous engagement with real people, and a shift in mindset to deliver value and impact over internal-led features. 

So let AI be your productivity co-pilot and let data guide your decision-making. But never let them steer the ship entirely. Because at the end of the day, you're not building for algorithms or analytics - you're building for people. Customer-centricity is more than just a buzzword, it’s your competitive edge in a market where pace is just expected.


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