What you need to know about customers: Who are they? What do they want? What do they need? How do they feel?
How do you find out? Through Customer Development.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate to participate in the Lean Startup Machine London, an intensive workshop that took us through the process of developing an idea into a viable product, using customer development as the key ingredient.
Embarking on the course I knew I had a lot to learn about understanding startups and growing them. What I didn’t appreciate was how much I could learn about customer development in the space of one weekend.
Where Success Comes From
The perception is often that successful products stem from great ideas. However the weekend taught me that ideas are actually just the beginning:
Success comes from understanding, from empathy, and from solving real problems for real people.
What is Customer Development?
In my rather sheltered experience of innovation, I thought I’d grasped the concept of customer development: the process of defining who would actually use and pay for your product. Answering the questions ‘who will pay for this?’, ‘what do they want’ and ‘when will they use it?’. What I failed to comprehend was that customer development isn’t just a step, it’s a continuous process that keeps on running.
Problems First, Solutions Later
As a strong advocate for coproduction, I knew the importance of talking and involving ‘real’ people in testing and steering a product. I felt confident in my ability to understand how to harness ideas and feedback in meaningful ways and how to utilize them to create a great product that is both wanted and needed. I didn’t realise that the significance lies not in having a great solution to a problem but in actually having a great problem to solve. I didn’t realize that talking about a solution, does not in fact lead to understanding your customer.
Beware the Confirmation Bias
Literature, research, facts and figures. Focus groups, questionnaires, and directed conversations. They deliver results, they prove a need, and they get people saying ‘yes’ but the thing is they are all open to bias. They can only confirm an idea. This is a fundamental lesson in trying to make a product succeed.
I very quickly discovered that developing your customer doesn’t happen through google, guess work or reading academic documents. Talking to family or friends doesn’t count either – after all how many relatives will tell you your baby is ugly? Getting out and holding conversations with the actual customer is key to understanding what they really need.
Get Customers to Talk About Problems
The questions who, what, where and how soon became my best friends, very quickly followed by whys, and more whys. What I was seeing was if you present an assumed problem to an assumed customer the chances are they will both be validated. Through asking open-ended questions and in showing a potentially unnatural interest I learnt people love to talk, and love to talk about problems.
Go Deeper for Better Insights
I also began to understand that moments of awkwardness generate opportunities. That silence is a friend (sometimes) – it’s the opportunity to enquire about why they are not answering. What are they thinking? Is it confusion or sensitivity? Have I found an emotion? Insights into people’s lives are difficult to get but essential to capture and it’s often in the words not shared where the greatest information lies.
Nail the Migraine, Not Just the Headaches
Developing the customer, understanding their drive, the emotions they feel, the ‘migraines’, not just headaches, they suffer became my most important component for building a successful product that weekend. Or, more truthfully, the apparent fail in developing my customer became my biggest error in not building a successful product that weekend. The combination of needs, goals, behaviours and most importantly the true pains of a person is what needs to be understood before taking the next step and creating a solution.
In just one weekend I experienced the empty feeling that is watching a product you’ve designed, fail. I felt the frustration of repeatedly grasping crumbs of problems rather than the full cookie. But I learnt something far more valuable, that the power of design doesn’t lie in an idea, solution or product, but in understanding a person’s heartfelt and deepest experience.