“I’m utilitarian. I do everything from drawing up long-term marketing plans to taking out the garbage before I close,” one restaurant owner told me when I asked him to summarize his responsibilities.

“What word would best describe your mindset as you’re closing the lid on the garbage bin?”

It’s my job to ask such questions.

I’m not a psychologist, I’m not conducting a full psychoanalysis. But I am trying to compile a story for my colleagues about the context in which we are designing technology. Storytelling is the most powerful activity through which we can inform and communicate decisions. Most companies have stories that guide them, compiled from metrics, anecdotes, financials, studies, and surveys. OpenTable invests in understanding the human side of the story. The story becomes complete when the “what” and “how many” identified through metrics is married to the “how” and “why” gained through experience research.

When we dined out with people paying with the OpenTable app for the first time, we noticed that instead of using the in-app help, diners would ask their servers for tips and troubleshooting help. The servers were not trained to be tech support for OpenTable but their commitment to hospitality required them to offer what help they could. When we got back from our research, our payments team kicked off a new initiative to train servers to understand the diner side of the experience so they can be a resource for diners.

The Experience Research team has facilitated numerous research projects in service of both our restaurant and consumer products. The process is collaborative and cross-functional: Product managers, product marketers, engineers, and designers take part in interviews, synthesis, and share-out sessions. This has given the larger team more ownership of our users’ stories by experiencing it first hand. Research projects have taken us across the world, to New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, Orlando, Nashville, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, London, and Tokyo with full teams in tow.

Through in-person interviews, the Experience Research team seeks to gather the goals, motivations, pain points, and behaviors of our users in order to tell their story. Since opportunities are easily identified from either unmet needs or unfulfilled goals, there is strategic value in gathering the story for the product team. Motivations and behaviors have helped our product and design teams create a design framework and craft product requirements.

Ultimately, experience research has put a human face to our users by helping our staff empathize with them. When we understand what goes through the manager’s mind as he takes out the garbage, we can imagine ourselves there too. We can humanize our work by asking ourselves, “How can I make this person’s life better?”