“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”
– Henry Ford (supposedly)
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Steve Jobs, BusinessWeek, May 25 1998
These oft-quoted quips have managed to stir up a lot of confusion about whether or not we should talk to customers about our products. Most experienced product teams still value customer research, as they should. But for those new to the field, these quotes can be misleading. Even for those who do know that customer research still has merit, it’s hard to know how to do it in a way that actually delivers tangible value. Here are some things to keep in mind.
First, I want to get this out of the way, despite these quotes,
Yes, you should talk to your customers. Every single day.
I really do mean that. Every single day. I know that our days are full. Our lives are busy. I’ve been there. I spent more than two years doing several jobs trying to keep a struggling startup alive. I still talked to our customers every single day. Here’s why. Each day that goes by without talking to your customer is a day that you get further away from building the right thing.
You can’t just do customer research every once in awhile. It’s not a quarterly or even monthly activity. It’s something that you have to build in to every day. It doesn’t have to be a big research project. As a startup CEO, the first thing I did every day was make sure that I had a customer call scheduled for that day. If I didn’t, I picked up the phone and called someone. We also had several users come in each week for ad-hoc usability testing. Out in the world, if I ran across someone who used our product, I used that opportunity to gain a little knowledge. It doesn’t have to be formal, it just has to be always.
The goal is to learn who you are building for, not what to build.
The biggest mistake I see people make is when they do get out and talk to customers, they ask them what they should build. They ask for feature requests. Please don’t do this. You are wasting everyone’s time. What I’m going to say next is going to sound a lot like the above quotes, but there’s an important subtlety here. People have no idea what they want. They don’t know what they would do. They have no idea if they would use a hypothetical product or not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to them.
Talk to them about their problems. Ask them about their day. Observe them. Try to identify whether or not they even have the problem your product is trying to solve. If they do, ask them about that problem. How do they solve it today? Are they satisfied with that solution? How often does the problem occur? Is it a big painful problem? Do other people in their organization have that problem? In what context does the problem occur? It bears repeating: Your goal is to learn about for whom you are building not what you should build.
Don’t ask leading questions.
What’s a leading question? What’s the difference between me asking, “What flavor do you want – strawberry? vanilla? chocolate?” and “What flavor do you want?” It’s a silly example. But a really important distinction. The first puts ideas in your head, it influences your answer. It might even limit what you think is in the realm of possibility. The second allows you to come up with the answer all by yourself.
Let’s look at a more realistic example. Suppose I ask a customer, “Do you have concerns about budget or usage?” Of course, I want to know if the customer does have concerns about budget or usage, but by asking it this way, I’ve done two things. First, if the customer didn’t have concerns about budget or usage, they might now. They are probably thinking to themselves, “should I have concerns about budget or usage?” And more importantly, if they do have other concerns, they might now be overshadowed by these two new concerns that didn’t even exist beforehand, meaning you might never discover them and be given the opportunity to address them.
Listen more than you talk.
Discover these concerns by talking less. Simply ask, “Do you have any concerns?”. Then stop talking. Let your customer respond. Remember, the goal is to learn about your customer, not sell your product. Although, even if you were trying to sell your product, listening more than talking is going to help just as much. Play a game with yourself. See how few words you can say to keep the conversation going.
Ask why or “Tell me more about that”.
You can talk less by relying on my two favorites. Ask why. Or if you don’t want to sound like an obnoxious five-year old, simply say, “Tell me more about that”. Keep score. How often was the response something completely unexpected. It will happen a lot. You’ll uncover countless things that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned if you instead asked a leading questions based on a wrong assumption.
You will hear solutions. Bring it back to problems.
Your customers are inevitably going to talk about solutions. They are going to ask for feature requests. That’s ok. That’s how our brains work. But gently bring them back to the problem. Some good ways to do this include asking, “How would you use that?” or “Tell me about when and why you would use that”. Feature requests are clues to a problem that you haven’t uncovered yet. Dig for the problem. It will be worth it.
To Sum Up
Ford (supposedly) and Jobs weren’t wrong. You can waste a lot of time asking customers the wrong things. But don’t mistake that for never talking to your customers. In fact, if you want to make sure you never fall into the trap of not knowing what you don’t know, do talk to your customers. Just keep the following in mind:
- Talk to your customers every day.
- Learn about who you are building for, not what to build.
- Don’t ask leading questions.
- Listen more than you talk
- Ask Why and “Tell me more about that”.
- You will hear solutions, bring it back to the problem.
Do you have other tips or tricks for uncovering great customer insights? Please share in the comments below.