Talking to Your Customers

Justin French, October 2011

Talking to your customers is crucial to the success of your product. Call it Customer Development, User Centered Design or Market Research, just make sure you’re doing it.

It’s not hard to do

Find a customer, or a potential customer, and start talking. If you’re nervous or lack the confidence to do this one-on-one (you’re absolutely not alone), grab your product manager, designer, tech lead, CEO or anyone else in your team and do it together. Reduce the formality and ceremony over a coffee or a beer. Start over email, on the phone. Invite your most trusted customers to talk among themselves in a private email group.

Starting is far more important than how you start. I don’t need to prepare too much either – it’s pretty easy to get people to talk about themselves and their work.

What not to do

Don’t talk about features. Asking them what features they want (or letting them push the conversation that way) is a complete waste of time. There’s two predictable outcomes, both of which should be considered negatives:

What to do instead

Ask them about their job, tasks, workflow, process and constraints. Ask them how they get stuff done. Ask them what they do, not what they need. The outcomes from this are far more positive:

If you must talk about features, always dig deeper. Shift the conversation away from the implementation to the reasons behind it. Instead of talking about that epic reporting widget they need, talk about why they need it, and how that helps them get stuff done.

Push them to articulate the problem, rather than prescribe the solution. It’s your job as a product designer to aggregate and consider the problems from many customers and design your own solution. Yes, it’s your product, you design it.

After listening to the problem, you may already have features that can help. This is awesome! You’ve just avoided a conversation about “missing features” and showed them how your product can help them right now.

If you find a real gap in your product, don’t instantly promise a feature to fill it. Instead, promise to spend time thinking about it. Ask them if they’d mind a follow-up conversation (if this is important to them, they’ll be excited to help).

“What they do” is far more valuable and interesting than “what they want”.