Perspective

Reciprocity: The secret ingredient of customer research

At Empathy, we work with a lot of people.

Whether we are interviewing electricians on compliance matters or identifying usability issues of a new website we’re creating, we rely on people’s stories and experiences to help us to explore, discover and design human-centred solutions.

But when we get people to participate in our research and development work, it’s not all about taking what we need.

It’s about reciprocity — which is more than shaking hands and giving out bottles of wine.

It’s about being grateful and aware of any time and insights gifted to us.

It’s also about leaving participants feeling like they are better for having engaged with us.

A lot of this plays out in how we engage with people.

If we’re interviewing a farmer, we don’t expect them to sit down to a cup of tea with us — we speak to them out on the paddock if that’s where they need to be. If the participant is having a really busy day, we offer to walk their dog or run a quick errand for them after the conversation has wrapped up.

Reciprocity means being mindful of the realities of people’s lives. It means letting people share their stories in a way that works for them.

But it’s also about giving something tangible back to each participant.

So we also:
Give koha*
Share back our findings.

Koha is determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on a participant’s level of involvement.

We’re thoughtful about what we gift — what’s pleasing to one person might be useless, or worse inappropriate, to another.

It can be anything, as long as we believe it will be of value to them participant.
We also share our final findings with everyone who participated in the project.

It’s not always possible to do this because of confidentiality issues — but when we do, we:

  • Say thanks
  • Show participants how their contribution made an impact
  • Let them know how the final product/service/findings will be useful to them.

That last bullet point? It’s imperative.

Reciprocity hinges on the mutual exchange of benefits. Saying thank you is important — but offering value is key.

How we share our findings depends on what form of communication is most appropriate to the participants (and the time and resources we have available).

Sending an email is fine — but there are many more meaningful ways, like sending a well designed and written card inside a hand-addressed envelope. If you engage with customers in your work, consider putting a reciprocity policy in place.

People are much more likely to stay involved in what you’re doing if they feel appreciated and have something useful to gain.

We’ve forged many lasting relationships by making sure we give as much as get.

It makes good business sense.

It’s also the right thing to do.

*Simply put, “koha” is the Māori word for “gift”. Te Arikirangi Mamaku wrote a nice piece on what koha truly means in the Wireless.

Author: Dani Cuaron
Endlessly fascinated by what makes people tick — this is what an anthropologist looks like when the “dig” is your organisation.

Author: MaiLynn Stormon-Trinh
Fascinated by stories — how people tell, use and learn from them — and uses that fascination to write engaging and empathetic content for her readers.