The Perception Gap: Can we ever really know what users want?

Sadie Neve

Have you ever heard of Mazagran? A coffee-flavoured bottled soda that Starbucks and Pepsi launched back in the mid-1990s? No, you haven’t, and there is a good reason for that!

Starbucks correctly collected market research that told them customers wanted a cold, sweet, bottled coffee beverage that they could conveniently purchase in stores.

So surely Mazagran was the answer?

Evidently not! Mazagran was not what the consumers actually wanted. The failure of this product was down to the asymmetry that existed between what the customers wanted and what Starbucks believed the customer wanted.

Despite Starbucks conducting market research, this gap in communication still occurred, often known as the perception gap. Luckily for Starbucks, Mazagran was a stepping stone to the huge success that came with bottled Frappucinos; what the consumers actually wanted.

What is the perception gap and why does it occur?

Perception is seen as the (active) process of assessing information in your surroundings. A perception gap occurs when you attempt to communicate this assessment of information but it is misunderstood by your audience.

Assessing information in your surroundings is strongly influenced by communication. Due to different forms of human communication, a perception gap can occur when communication styles are different to your own. Not only can these gaps occur, but they vary in size. This depends on the different levels of value that you, or your customers, attach to each factor. In addition, many natural cognitive biases can influence the degree of the perception gap, biasing ourselves to believe we know what other people are thinking, more than we actually do.

Perception gaps in ecommerce businesses

Perception gaps mainly occur in social situations, but they can also heavily impact e-commerce businesses, from branding and product to marketing and online experience.

Perception gaps within ecommerce mainly appear due to customers forming opinions about your company and products on their broader experiences and beliefs. One thing that is for sure, perception gaps certainly occur between websites and their online users. Unfortunately, they are often the start of vicious cycles, where small misinterpretations of what the customer wants or needs are made worse when we try to fix them. Ultimately, this means we are losing out on turning visitors into customers.

Starbucks and Pepsi launching Mazagran was an example of how perception gaps can lead to the failure of new products. McDonalds launching their “Good to Know” campaign is an example of how understanding this perception gap can lead to branding success.

This myth-busting campaign was launched off the back of comprehensive market research using multiple techniques. McDonalds understood the differences between what they thought of themselves e.g. fast food made with high quality ingredients, and what potential customers thought of McDonalds, e.g. chicken nuggets made of chicken beaks and feet. Understanding that this perception gap existed allowed them to address these in their campaign, which has successfully changed users perceptions of their brand.

For most digital practices, research plays an important part in allowing a company or brand to understand their customer base. However, conducting and analyzing research is often where the perception gap begins to form.

For example, say you are optimizing a checkout flow for a retailer. You decide to run an on-site survey to gather some insight into why users may not be completing the forms, and therefore are not purchasing. After analyzing the results it seems the top reason users are not converting is they are finding the web form confusing. Now this where the perception gap is likely to form. Do users want the form to be shortened? Do they want more clarity or explanation around form fields? Is it the delivery options that they may not understand? 

Not being the user means we will never fully understand the situation that the user is in. Making assumptions of this builds on the perception gap.

Therefore, reducing the perception gap is surely a no-brainer when it comes to optimizing our websites. But is it as easy as it seems? 

In order to reduce the perception gap you need to truly understand your customer base. If you don’t, then there is always going to be an asymmetry between what you know about your customers and what you think you know about your customers.

How to reduce perception gaps

Sadly, perception gaps are always going to exist due to our interpretation of the insights we collect and the fact that we ourselves are not the actual user. However, the following tips may help to get the most out of your testing and optimization by reducing the perception gap:

  1. Challenge assumptions – too often we assume we know about our customer, how they are interacting with our site and what they are thinking. Unfortunately, these assumptions can get cemented over time into deeply held beliefs of how users think and behave. However, challenging these assumptions leads to true innovation and new ideas that may not have been thought of before. With this in mind, assumptions can be answered by the research we conduct.
  2. Always optimize based on two supporting evidences – the perception gap is more likely to occur when research into a focus area is limited or based on one source of insight. Taking a multiple-measure approach means insights are likely to be more valid and reliable.
  3. Read between the lines – research revolves around listening to your customers but more importantly it is about reading between the lines. It is the difference between asking for their responses and then actually understanding them. As Steve Jobs once said “Customers don’t know what they want”; whether you believe that or not, understanding their preferences is still vital for closing the perception gap.
  4. Shift focus to being customer-led – being more customer-led, as opposed to product-led will place a higher value on research of your customers. With more emphasis on research, this should lead to a great knowledge and understanding of your customer base, which in turn should reduce the perception gap that has the potential to form.


The perception gap is something that is always going to exist and is something we have to accept. Conducting research, and a lot of it, is certainly a great way to reduce the perception gap that will naturally occur. However, experimentation is really the only means to truly confirm whether the research and insight you collected into your customer base are valid and significantly improve the user experience. One quote that has always made me think is by Flint McLaughlin who said “we don’t optimize web pages, we optimize for the sequence of thought”. This customer-led view when it comes to experimentation can only result in success.

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