What's the difference between human understanding and consumer understanding

Oct 17, 2023

Consumer understanding matters! No doubt. We all want to know what consumers think, what's affecting them, and what makes them tick. But let's not forget that every consumer is also a human - thus, research that has an element of human understanding built-in can help companies understand their consumers - I mean humans - better.

Humans are complex enough, so diving deeper into what makes them tick holistically can help companies make better decisions.  

“Every consumer is also a person - a friend, a caregiver, a passionate artist, a caring volunteer, and on and on,” said Baillie Buchanan, co-founder at Research for Good. “Today more than ever our consumers are making purchase decisions from the position of their whole self. Not just their preferences or impulses but their morals, values and passions. To understand the consumer fully, we must seek to better understand the human behind the consumer.”

Let's start with the basics.

What is consumer understanding?

Consumer understanding at a high level refers to companies knowing what matters to consumers in their market. That can range from what they are trying to accomplish with your product to how they make buying decisions.

Consumer understanding is necessary for a company to make the right decisions, update products, and create experiences that matter to consumers and that they are willing to pay for.

What is human understanding?

Human understanding looks at the person in more of a holistic way. What outside factors affect their decision-making, and what struggles do they face that could affect what they buy and when they buy it?  

For example, a parent might be very much interested in a company's product, but the timing of a phone call was inconvenient because they were trying to get their kids ready for youth sports practice. It's no different on digital channels. A consumer might see your ad or social post and be interested, but they were interrupted by something else happening in their lives.

Indeed, there's a line to how much companies need to know about consumers. And some things should just be private. However, understanding the human behind the consumer can help research results be more thorough and helpful.

“Human understanding is incredibly important today, and it's getting more important all the time,” said Nikki Lavoie, EVP of Innovation and Strategy at Savanta. “Understanding one another is the basis for this decade's on-again, off-again buzzword: empathy.”

“Without empathy, we fail to drive true connection, whether between brands and people, or within workplaces and home,” Nikki said. “Empathy and understanding are cyclical: the more we empathize, the more we understand; the more we understand, the more we empathize

As Nikki already partially mentioned, understanding the human involves:

  • Empathy. It's easy enough to say, "Their family tasks aren't related to our product." But they might be if they prevent the consumer from purchasing  
  • Accounting for irrationality. We know people make emotional decisions that are not always based on the facts. Understanding the level of irrationality in decision-making is helpful to understand the person.

“Understanding the human aspect is vital to grasp irrational decision-making in research,” said Michael Nevski, Director, Global Insights at Visa. “Emotions, biases, context, motivations, and behavioral economics contribute to these deviations. Acknowledging this complexity allows for more effective strategies, bridging the gap between theory and real-world behavior.”

How to know whether to focus on human vs. consumer understanding

On some level, a good qualitative researcher has always combined the two. When I talk to people in focus groups, for example, I read the room, body language, and tone. Active listening allows me to see when a reaction might be triggered by an experience outside the direct consumer experience. At times, it might be worthwhile to gently follow up and ask what prompted such a strong reaction to the question.

That can lead to deeper responses and understanding of all the aspects that influence a person's decisions as a consumer. Having that face-to-face conversation can improve the level of human understanding because we can follow up in the moment and truly understand the person.

Listen: The science of trust

Why is human understanding hard for companies?

Time, skills, and using the best research methods all play a part. Indeed, there's been a trend in the industry that results need to be shared today! Right this second. The thirst for knowledge - and what it means - is never-ending. But, moving too fast doesn't allow us to truly listen to the human behind the consumer and will leave essential knowledge in the dust.

Focusing on human understanding can be overlooked as companies chase revenues in the current quarter. Understanding the consumer today can undoubtedly lead to profits today. But understanding them on a human level can set companies up to win not just the current quarter but also the ones down the road. After all, those quarters will be here before we know it.