customer journey

If your business is up and running, you’re probably starting to think about how to grow your revenue and build a successful and sustainable enterprise for the long-term.

If your business has an online component, and almost every business does, optimizing the path to a purchase conversion and building a strategy for customer retention is essential. You’re looking at allocating budget, time, and resources to conduct tests on everything you can to figure out what works best.

But in order to optimize the customer journey, you must start by looking at every interaction your company has with your customers from start to finish.

But if your business is new, it can be difficult to run quality tests because you’re still growing your customer base. This problem is the lack of user data. When you’re testing on smaller numbers of users, it can be tough to gain the type of meaningful insights you need to make decisions that lead to growth.

It’s the ultimate catch-22: How do you prioritize research when you have insufficient numerical data? And yet, research is vital to facilitate growth through enhanced customer experience.

The age-old debate on qualitative and quantitative research now ensues. Which of the two should be given priority? In this article, I will share some insights into how you can overcome a lack of user data to improve and test the customer journey.

Quantitative versus qualitative research

There are two main methodologies used to gain insight into business performance: quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative research is concerned with the numerical data. The insights and data that this type of market research stems from methods like big surveys and A/B user testing. It’s common for startups to focus mainly on quantitative research. As a result, they waste resources on data that is somewhat indicative, but by no means bulletproof. But you just can’t rely on it to inform strategy if the user base you’re testing on is too small.

In contrast, qualitative research is often neglected by startups. Perhaps they are influenced by one of the major criticisms leveled at this research method: that it is too subjective. Surely the cold, hard data provided by quantitative research is a better foundation for your business than, for example, a case study based on just one individual user of your product? But don’t forget that the aim of the research is to understand customer experience—and a customer’s response to your brand, whether to purchase or walk away, is shaped by their own subjective opinions.

Qualitative research, then, with its focus on customer experience, is just as crucial to business success as quantitative research. It’s a big opportunity for startups. 

Use methods that work with a small sample size

Take usability tests, for example—you might assume you need a large number of users to obtain useful results. However, a Nielsen/Norman Group research report showed that the best results actually come from testing a limited number of users. The report states that a sample size of five users is sufficient to attain diversity in terms of user behavior and insight. Test more than five five users, writes Jakob Nielsen, and “you are wasting your time by observing the same findings repeatedly but not learning much new”.

Diversity of users, not the number of users, can be more informative

Therefore, a startup can still conduct effective research into customer experience, despite a small number of users. The Nielsen/Norman Group report goes on to explain that it is diversity—not size—that will provide feedback to improve your customer journey. Conducting three studies on five users was found to be more productive than conducting one big study with 15 or more users.

As well as being more cost-effective, carrying out three smaller studies allows you to test different aspects of, for example, the design of a website, providing more information to fix problems at an early stage of development.

In summary, this research method allows you to:

  1. Distribute budget
  2. Gather more data for analysis
  3. Improve usability and not just document weaknesses

Directing your research budget into multiple small qualitative research studies can produce valuable results.

These tests will then enable you to evaluate findings and test again until you find a formula that works. Qualitative research can provide the key to really get under the customer’s skin, understand their experience, and develop a product they will love.

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Customer journey mapping

We’ve established that you don’t need a huge customer base to carry out productive research. But where should you start? Let’s consider one of the most important methods of market research for a startup: building a customer journey map.

The customer journey map pinpoints each interaction between the potential customer and your company: from initial awareness of your brand to the final purchase decision (and beyond). At its most basic, it’s useful to break down the map into three key funnel stages:

Awareness stage

The prospect discovers your brand! Their goal is not to find products or services yet. Instead, they are researching information about a problem or a need they have, trying to understand what they want.

Consideration stage

The prospect is clearly aware of their need/problem and its potential solution. They are committed to finding the product or service that will meet their need—and your brand could be one of many they consider.

Decision stage

The prospect identifies the best solution to their problem, and they must decide which vendors can provide this. Based on the information they collect, they will make a final purchase decision. If they choose to make a purchase, you have achieved a conversion.

The conversion happens toward the end of the customer journey, but it’s the result of all the customer’s accumulated interactions, which have worked together to influence their decision. Therefore, it’s vital to map each stage in order to optimize the experience at every touchpoint.

Asking questions about the customer journey

In order to improve the customer experience at each stage of their journey, you can evaluate its performance.

As the prospect interacted with your brand, what went right and what went wrong?

  • Awareness stage: What was the customer looking for when they discovered your brand? How did they find you—e.g. search engine results or a social ad? Did they quickly realize your USP?
  • Consideration stage: How did the customer compare your brand with its competitors? Was the website easy to navigate? Did the customer clearly understand your pricing and terms?
  • Decision stage: What tipped the balance in your favor? How was the customer’s experience of communicating with the sales and support team?

There are many more questions to ask at each stage. These are just a few that will help you understand lost prospects and successful customers better.

It’s important to consider the feelings, emotions, and personal goals—and how these changed at different stages of the journey. Also, how and why did these changes occur? Are there factors within your control that can influence these shifts? The more you can predict these and the corresponding actions, the better you craft the customer experience to optimize performance.

This is “soft” qualitative research, but it’s nonetheless meaningful.

The purpose of a customer journey map is to reveal the bigger picture: not just how you want your brand to be perceived but how it actually is experienced by the customer.

Research methods for customer experience

For a business to succeed, you must highlight your brand’s unique value proposition. However, your offer must match customer needs at each stage. Evaluating customer experience provides the information necessary to understand and meet these needs.

Don’t hold back from asking your customers about their views and experiences. Even with limited users, qualitative insight will help you shape the experience. However, people mustn’t be made to feel like “points on a map.” Don’t mention the customer journey explicitly in your communication; rather, ask considered questions that will generate truly heartfelt insights.

Start with direct interviewing prospects and customers. Personalized emails and/or online surveys are also a good option. This information is genuinely valuable to your startup’s development, so consider this research as an investment. Compensate participants accordingly with product discounts or compelling rewards.

Be honest, open, and raw. Above all, remember that people respond if they feel valued.


As a startup with a small number of users and a limited depth of user data, qualitative research is invaluable for analyzing customer experience. Tests can be conducted effectively with small sample groups who provide useful first-hand information.

Once you’ve evaluated every stage of the customer journey, you’ll have a full picture of the customer pain points associated with each stage. Plot these into the map and plan how your startup will remove obstacles and facilitate a smoother progression.

Ultimately, the end goal is to build empathy for the customer. This will help your team stay focused on your quest to build a great user experience.

Without empathy and understanding, your marketing efforts will be futile. Emotion is at the core of your relationship with customers. Putting yourself in their shoes during the experience will help gain a wider understanding of what drives decisions. Understanding motivations and frictions will help you transform interested prospects into loyal long-term customers.

AvatarOren Greenberg

Oren Greenberg is a growth marketer and the founder of the Kurve consultancy in London. He helps startups and corporate innovations projects scale using digital channels. He has written for leading marketing blogs and has been featured in the international press.