We did 900+ customer interviews before we created an AI strategy. Here’s what we learned.

Katalina Mayorga
11 min readDec 12, 2023

By Kene Anoliefo and Katalina Mayorga

Background

Like any new and innovative technology, AI has to meet people where they are — not where we want them to be. How do you create a winning AI strategy based on what your customers need now?

In the second part of our three part series, we’ll share more about how we used customer research to help uncover which problems to solve using AI.

We’re founders of two venture backed startups, El Camino (Katalina) and Elis (Kene). El Camino is a travel company that empowers women to have extraordinary travel experiences, and Elis is the creator of a new product called HEARD which helps companies understand their customers better through AI-powered customer interviews.

If customer research doesn’t reveal uncomfortable truths about your business, you’re not doing it right.

Kene: Many people think the hardest part of customer research is knowing what questions to ask. But after working with founders on customer research almost daily, I’ve learned that the hardest part is being open to receive the answers you get after you ask the questions.

Founders start businesses based on a series of unshakeable beliefs: belief in a market, belief in their product and above all, belief in themselves. It’s not easy to humble yourself when you begin talking to customers and realize that some of the unshakable beliefs you founded your company on aren’t quite right. This is the process of going from “unshakeable beliefs” → “uncomfortable truths”.

As we introduced in our first piece, Katalina and I came together to build an AI strategy for her company, El Camino Travel. We started by first talking to her customers to understand which problems were most important to solve and why.

To do this we used HEARD, a product created by my startup Elis that helps companies conduct customer research at scale using AI-powered interviews. Our AI interviewed 900+ El Camino customers by chatting directly with them to understand how they plan trips and digging deep to uncover their needs and goals, just like a human interviewer would.

Next, our AI synthesized the data from those conversations into insights that Katalina could use to understand what was important to her community without needing to do any manual analysis herself.

HEARD helped speed up a process that would have taken weeks using in-person interviews into just a few days. You can demo the interview experience we used here.

We knew we would learn a lot over the course of hundreds of interviews, but we were amazed at the depth of insight it revealed. Katalina — what was the most significant “uncomfortable truth” that came from our research?

Katalina: For me, it was realizing that I am no longer my own customer. I initially founded El Camino with travelers like myself in mind. But now close to a decade in the industry has given me access to resources, connections, and a wealth of expertise that our typical customers don’t have. I am not my customer, but I was making assumptions about what I needed to build for them based on how I plan my trips, not what they need to plan theirs. It was an eye-opening realization at first, but I’m glad I dug deep to uncover it because now I have such great clarity on who my customers are and how El Camino can help them.

Kene: That type of “aha!” moment can completely change the trajectory of a company, which I know it has in your case. Let’s talk about the questions we asked to uncover this uncomfortable truth. When doing customer discovery, a good place to start is focusing on three categories of questions: needs, workflows and challenges. We came up with 40 questions across these categories that would get the El Camino community to open up and share more about their travel experiences, from delving into what role travel plays in their lives to how they build trust in a recommendation.

Here are the three takeaways from our interviews and the questions we asked to get there.

Key Takeaway #1: Trips are high-stakes, meaningful experiences that are more than just a vacation — they define your identity.

Questions we asked:

  • What role does travel play in your life?
  • Tell me about your last international trip. What type of experience were you hoping to have?
  • What types of experiences lead to lasting memories when traveling?

For the El Camino customer, travel defines who they are as a person. Traveling is their chance to expand their horizons, meet new people and educate themselves about the world. It’s a means to find inspiration, build gratitude, and even process grief and trauma. Travelers put a great deal of intention into planning because they believe each trip has the potential to transform their lives.

As a result, the choices travelers make about their trips reflect their values and showcase their personal aesthetic. It means something to go to Morocco vs. Cancún for spring break, or to stay at a boutique hotel rather than a resort.

The things they choose to do on trips reflects who travelers aspire to be everyday at home, but only allow themselves to be when they’re abroad. For instance, spending hours scouring a market for hand-crafted artisan goods or striking up a conversation with a local at an off-the-beaten-path dive bar. International trips are a chance to live a life you’ve always dreamed of for a brief but magical period.

Because trips are identity-defining, travelers put a lot of pressure on themselves to make the best choices possible. It’s not just about their experience during the trip; they want to come home and share beautiful images on Instagram and recount stories to their colleagues at work. The El Camino customer wants to be the person that their friends call for recommendations because they’re cultured and adventurous, and every trip is a chance to further reinforce their identity as a world traveler.

HEARD Bot: What role does travel play in your life?

Anonymous: It is a part of my identity. If i do not travel (even if it is for only a few hours away) a month, I feel like I lose a part of me.

HEARD Bot: How do you feel when you’re able to travel and explore new places?

Anonymous: It feels like exercises for the soul

HEARD Bot: What role does travel play in your life?

Anonymous: It’s pretty much one of the biggest parts of my life and identity

HEARD Bot: What is it about travel that makes it such a big part of your life and identity?

Anonymous: I have met some of my best friends traveling abroad, I’ve also had the biggest personal growth happen while abroad.

Key Takeaway #2: To build confidence as they plan their itinerary, travelers feel that they must spend hours vetting every option from multiple angles.

Questions we asked:

  • How do you approach putting together an itinerary for the trip and deciding which things to do on each day?
  • What is the most difficult part of planning international trips and why?

Because the stakes are so high for every trip, travelers are willing to spend hours doing research to create the perfect vacation. To build trust in a single recommendation, the El Camino traveler needs to gather perspectives from many sources including travel blogs, magazines, friends and family, local experts and internet forums. Looking at a 5 star rating isn’t enough; this traveler will read through every positive and negative review in order to form their own independent assessment.

Researching across multiple sites is tedious, but these travelers see it as necessary evil. The fruit of their labor is crafting the perfect itinerary filled with “hidden gems” that will lead to the trip of a lifetime.

HEARD Bot: How do you approach putting together an itinerary for the trip and deciding which things to do on each day?

Anonymous: EXTENSIVE internet searching, referencing the El Camino clubhouse, searching Tiktok and Instagram, Reddit, travel blogs and magazines, good ol’ fashioned Google searches, etc.

HEARD Bot: When you’re searching for information online, what specific details are you looking for to help you decide on the activities and attractions for each day of your trip?

Anonymous: I try to find articles and posts from authors with whom I share interests! Then I cross reference from other articles and Google reviews.

Key Takeaway #3: Even though planning can be tedious, it’s a labor of love that helps to build anticipation for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Questions we asked

  • What’s your favorite part of planning an international trip?
  • What stresses you out the most about planning a trip?

Planning a trip can feel overwhelming at times, but travelers also describe it as an important opportunity for education and excitement. Planning builds anticipation for the trip by helping them envision the new life they’ll lead as they travel abroad. For many, the trip starts as they begin looking at pictures, reading testimonials or combing through hashtags on social media.

HEARD Bot: What is your favorite thing about planning an international trip?

Anonymous: Getting to dive into and learn more about a country before visiting. I think to find all possibilities and offerings, then narrow down and build an itinerary.

HEARD Bot: When you’re diving into a country and learning more about it, what are some specific things you look for or consider?

Anonymous: Events that highlight culture. Exploring the climate. Hitting “must see” places. Foodie tours.

Katalina: If you talk to anyone who has been in the industry for some time, you’ve probably heard the stat that travelers feel overwhelmed by planning because they go to 70+ pages and spend 20+ hours to piece together their itinerary. Most research concentrates on “what” travelers do without digging deeper into the “why” — why are they willing to spend this much time to piece together the perfect vacation? The research we did with HEARD unlocked this new understanding of the psychology behind the decisions that travelers are making and what they’re hoping to achieve.

Kene: If you focused solely on the “what” it’s easy to see how you might think that the solution is to build a chatbot. If people are overwhelmed by choice, why not just have an AI concierge build out an itinerary for them?

But when you go deeper, you understand why this wouldn’t be enough for the El Camino customer. They want expert guidance and personalized recommendations, not a generic itinerary summarized from top websites. These travelers aren’t going to take any recommendation at face value — they need to see multiple perspectives before making a decision. And while travelers want the planning process to be more efficient, they don’t want everything done for them. They appreciate doing research because they can learn about a new place and build anticipation for their trip.

Another great thing about using HEARD is that because we interviewed 900+ people, we were able to quantitatively measure every theme that emerged. Using our AI analysis, we could quantify how many people gave a specific piece of feedback and compare that number to other themes. This helps to demonstrate that what we heard isn’t anecdotal evidence from one or two people — it’s a real pattern that rings truel for many members across your community.

Katalina: HEARD made it clear for me: My customers want to feel confident that the choices they make during planning will lead to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it’s hard to build that confidence when you’re planning a trip from afar and relying on recommendations from strangers.

The time I’ve spent working in travel has given me unique access that my customers don’t always have. I never worry about finding great recommendations because I can always find guidance within my network. I’m resilient to the occasional travel mishap and can adapt on the fly. A single bad experience never fazes me because I know another trip is always on the horizon. This isn’t the reality for 98% of travelers, whose trips are often few and far between, each carrying significant weight and expectations.

Confidence allows travelers to experience their trips differently. They’re more excited in the lead-up to the trip. If they arrive and something goes wrong, they feel equipped to make changes on the fly. Afterwards, they feel proud that they created such an amazing experience for their family and loved ones and can’t wait to share it with the world.

This research sparked a desire within me. I yearned to extend the same level of confidence that comes from my expertise and network to a broader audience of travelers. The question then became: How can we scale this level of personalized guidance? How can we use our insights and technology to bridge the gap between the expert traveler and the everyday adventurer?

Kene: And just like that, you went from customer feedback (what your customers say) → customer needs (what their goals are) → business opportunities (strategic bets your team can make to create new value in the marketplace). Instead of starting with an AI solution and hoping it solves a problem, you’re starting with a problem you know is real for your customers and exploring a number of solutions to solve it, AI included.

Katalina: Exactly. When we mapped out all the opportunities it became clear that there were numerous challenges to address at different points in the traveler journey. Given our early stage as a business, we needed to select a problem that aligned with the El Camino mission as well as the unique strengths we have now.

In our final post, we’ll share the opportunities we identified that I believe are helpful for anyone in the travel industry to consider, especially when thinking about which challenges they are best equipped to solve for their customers.

Learn more about the authors…

Kene Anoliefo is the founder of Elis, a venture-backed startup that helps communities understand each other better. Their product HEARD uses AI to help companies scale user research through AI-powered customer interviews. Before starting Elis, Kene led product teams at Netflix and Spotify building tools and experiences for artists and creators, and was the first product hire and sixth employee at Compass. You can connect with her on Linkedin here.

Katalina Mayorga is the founder of El Camino, a community-driven platform that directly connects women to extraordinary travel experiences, resources, and local experts. A seasoned veteran of the travel industry, she has led El Camino to become one of the most popular consumer brands in the space by providing women the tools and connections that empower them to experience the full potential of this world. Katalina has been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, and Washington Post, and was just named one of the 15 most influential women in travel by Condé Nast Traveler. You can connect with her on Linkedin here.

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