While flipping through random TV stations the other night, I found myself landing on an episode of Undercover Boss. If you haven’t seen the show before, the premise is this: a powerful corporate executive, usually one that leads a multi-million dollar company, disguises him (or herself) and goes undercover to discover certain realities about the day-to-day operations of his business. The CEO sees firsthand what his lower ranking employees are dealing with and eventually, there is an emotional moment when the CEO has a powerful epiphany, realizing he has to change the way he manages some of his business operations to have a more successful company and happier workforce. It dawned on me, as I found myself immersed in the televised world of Undercover Boss, that the show is inadvertently showcasing user research methods and advocating user research as a catalyst for innovation and change.

Contextual Interview

The episode of Undercover Boss I watched featured Mitch Modell, CEO of Modell’s, the East Coast’s largest sporting goods retailer, who shaved his head, sported a fake mustache, put on casual clothes and showed up to one of his stores in Connecticut as a new trainee. Upon arrival, Mitch meets the store’s manager who walks him through the store and provides an overview of the business. The manager explains some of the challenges in his position while Mitch regales him with questions.

The research methodology that Mitch employs when meeting this manager is the contextual interview. Through targeted questions, Mitch was able to get an inventory of the activities that the manager is involved in on a daily basis and an understanding of the business processes at that particular store. To understand each response, Mitch probes so he can fully understand the manager’s perspective. Additionally, as a result of being in context with the user, Mitch is able to see what work tools and environment the manager uses so he can understand day to day management operations.

Through the contextual interview, Mitch learns the store is not receiving in-demand, seasonal inventory that directly affect profits and productivity. After discussing the issue with the manager, who demonstrates an impressive understanding of both the individual store’s needs as well as the company’s macro-culture, Mitch realizes that in always focusing on Modell’s big picture, he has overlooked important considerations that affect individual stores, customers and employees.

End User Testing

In another scene, Mitch arrives at a company warehouse to work as a warehouse worker. He meets a fellow employee who explains that Mitch will be responsible for getting inventory assembled and transported to the waiting delivery truck.

As Mitch starts working in the warehouse; he quickly encounters issues, such as clumsily knocking over boxes, while struggling to move merchandise with a forklift from one area of the warehouse to another. Mitch also struggles to neatly and efficiently stack boxes on the delivery truck. While Mitch is able to complete the tasks, he does so with assistance from his fellow colleague and additional time on each task.

Even though Mitch is not a true end user, his attempt to complete tasks to achieve a desired result is common to end user testing or usability testing. In usability testing a user is asked to complete tasks so that researchers can understand where he or she encounters problems and experiences confusion. Often, multiple users are asked to complete the same tasks so the researcher can assess if most users are encountering similar problems. The researcher will make improvement recommendations depending on the patterns they see.

By being an end user and completing the tasks in this warehouse “usability test,” Mitch quietly realizes that as a CEO, he has under appreciated this critical job in the company that he was considering for a reduction in pay. Mitch realizes the warehouse role is critical and requires someone a special skill set, specific training. Additionally, he realizes that in order to retain the best employees for this job, he needs to pay them a competitive wage.

User Observation

In yet another scene, Mitch shadows a Modell’s truck driver who is making deliveries on the busy streets of Manhattan.

User observation is a method where a researcher will observe a user in his work environment. Typically the researcher will spend time with the user in order to formulate a full picture of his world. Through observation, a researcher has the ability to gain understanding of an individual’s behavior, tools, tasks and pain points. By observing the user in context, the researcher is able to notice details that the user has taken for granted when completing his or her tasks.

While observing the driver, Mitch sees how he encounters hours of delays as the truck is denied parking at various delivery destinations. The driver is unfazed and notes that these delays are part of the job. Mitch quickly realizes that the warehouse driver has outside forces that inhibit him from doing his job in a timely matter that could be rectified by better delivery schedules. As a CEO, Mitch had no previous understanding of the complicated logistics involved in just this key aspect of his operation.

Insights through Context

Contextual research immerses the researcher in the world of the other person (user). The researcher is able to gather stories, see what the other person is doing (or not doing), and can then frame the problem she is trying to solve contextually. When a researcher goes into the user’s workplace, she develops an unfiltered understanding of current work practices, environment and tools, through observation and the interviewing process.

By “courageously” going undercover, Mitch gains critical insight into both employee and customer experiences at his company, which he has always previously viewed through a macro-lens. These new micro-insights expose various internal issues and greatly increase Mitch’s sense of empathy, for both employees and customers; and these revelations would never have occurred through Mitch’s usual channels of receiving information about Modell’s—like reading a report or hearing second-hand-information. Mitch gains wisdom and perspective that has long eluded him in his role as CEO. He’s a smarter CEO than he was before he personally braved the frontier of contextual research.

Information is Power

The reality show reinforces the notion that true change in a company, as is the case in the field of User Experience, begins at the top. Until the executive branch is intimately aware of existing issues and problems, has experienced them on a visceral level, and is prepared to take thoughtful action to rectify them, nothing significant can happen. As Jeofrey Bean notes in his new book, Customer Experience Rules, “Engaging your CEO is one of the critical rules of creating a great customer experience.” Bean continues, “Customer Experience doesn’t work its way up the organization. Commitment from the CEO is vital to instill a customer experience culture in a company.” Whether he realizes it or not, Mitch Modell engages in three important applications of contextual inquiry—interview, user testing, and user observation—to learn more about his company and to determine where he can make improvements. A CEO who experiences firsthand what his employees deal with, in order to carry out their daily tasks, has the information that will allow him to change the way he manages some of his business operations; and, most importantly, to create a more innovative company and a happier workforce.