Monday, March 8, 2010

Seven More Ways People Suck at Customer Development

I’ve spent many years talking to users about how to improve products. It’s a big part of the job of any UX professional. With the recent emphasis on lean customer development and MVP, talking to customers is no longer limited to a couple of people in an organization. These days, everybody is learning from customers, and that’s a great thing for the usability of products.

Unfortunately, it does cause a few new problems. The main one is that most people who are new at talking to users kind of suck at it.

I’ve written a bit about the mistakes that inexperienced user researchers make when talking to users. However, there are several other serious problems that are far more likely to occur when the people doing the interviewing are deeply invested in the product. If you’re a founder, an engineer, a designer, a product owner, or anybody else with strong, emotional ties to your product, and you’re trying to learn by talking to users, you need to make sure you’re not falling into any of the following traps.

The Big Sale

Often, when you’re sitting down with a potential customer to talk them about your product, your first impulse is to make as good an impression as possible. This is perfectly natural. The problem is, it can really get in the way of getting good information from the potential customer about how to make your product better.

If your goal is to understand what’s not working about your product or what’s preventing people from buying it, stop trying to sell your product to the potential customer. Don’t read off a list of features that are in the product or that will be in the product. Don’t tell the customer how awesome the product is or how good it is at solving all their problems. And, for the love of God, don’t tell them about your Vision for the product.

What should you do? Shut up and let the customer tell you about their problems and how they’d like to solve them. Listen to the customer tell you about his perception of your product and what he sees as wrong with it. Your goal isn’t to convince the customer that your product is great. Your goal should be to let the customer help you make your product great.

The Guided Tour

Talking to users or potential customers can be a little nerve wracking, and a normal reaction to those nerves can be to start a conversation by giving a guided tour of the product. After all, if you’re showing the user a new feature or a brand new product, sometimes they need a little context for what they’re about to see.
What starts out as a quick intro can turn into a long-winded demo describing the product and all of its fabulous uses, which can leave the participant bored, annoyed, and with nothing left to discover on his own.

What should you do? When you’re talking to somebody about your product, it’s often necessary to give a little background, but you need to be careful you’re not giving them way too much information. To help control the flow of info, spend some time before the interview, and write down everything that a user would be likely to know if she were to discover the product or feature or on her own or that she absolutely must know for the product or feature to make sense. Read the intro to the customer, and then don’t say anything else about the product.

The Best Defense

It can be hard to hear people say mean things about the product that you love so much. I know. I’ve been there. I’ve also been present in usability tests where people angrily defended their product against any sort of criticism rather than listening to the feedback and using it to improve things.

Remember, the people savaging your product are telling you important things that you need to know. They’re telling you their perceptions of the product, and if they think it sucks, it’s important for you to find out why they think that rather than convincing them that they’re wrong. Arguing with them will only get them to go away thinking you’re a jerk and won’t do a damn thing to make your product better.

What should you do? Suck it up, cupcake. I don’t care how angry you are at that person for hating your product, you must never, ever show it. This can be tricky, because defensiveness can come across not just verbally but physically. Glowering, rolling your eyes, and sighing deeply are all very, very bad for establishing a comfortable rapport with your customer. If you absolutely can’t be neutral when listening to criticism, have somebody else run the interview and make sure you sit out of the line of sight of the customer.

The Shut Down

Being defensive isn’t the only way to shut down somebody’s opinion. You can also do it by not drawing out the participant in the right way. If you find that you’re getting a lot of yes/no answers or only hearing exactly what you expect to hear, you may be shutting down your interview participants in a more subtle way.

What should you do? Don’t ask for or settle for one word answers. If somebody says something is “cool” or “neat” or “pretty,” follow up. Ask WHAT about the product makes it cool, even if you think already know the answer. Also, smile, connect, make a little small talk, and otherwise do your best to put the person at ease so that they feel comfortable telling you things even if you didn’t ask. Somebody who feels like they’re having a comfortable chat with you will volunteer information, but a person who feels like they’re being grilled by a homicide detective will shut down and give as little information as possible.

The I’m Right, You’re Wrong

Sometimes even good methods can be used for bad reasons. Repeat after me, “User research is not about proving somebody else wrong.” Your goal for a customer interview can NOT be to prove a point to one of your colleagues who thinks differently than you do about a feature, no matter HOW stupid they’re being. When you talk to customers, your goal should be to find out how they feel, NOT to prove that the customers agree with you.

What should you do? If you find yourself saying (or thinking) something along the lines of, “well, we’ll just test it, and the users will like my solution better than so and so’s,” then you need to take a deep breath and let go of your preconceptions. You also probably need to find somebody else to run the interview, since you may be biased beyond all hope of neutrality.

The Helping Hand

It’s great to be a helpful person, and I can completely understand how hard it can be to watch somebody struggle at something that you already know how to do. Sadly, this can go a little too far. I’ve been in usability tests where observers have literally grabbed a mouse from a participant to show them how to perform a task.

But sometimes you need to let people fail so that you can understand how to make things easier for them. After all, you won’t be there in the room with every customer who is struggling to use your product, so the only way to help them all is to let the person you’re talking to fail miserably.

What should you do? Sit on your hands, duct tape your mouth closed, count to one hundred…anything to keep yourself from jumping in to help as soon as a customer or test participant starts failing to use your product correctly. Watch your customer use your product the way she uses it, and don’t try to make her use it the way you think she should use it, even if your way is better. If you have a helpful tip that you really want to share, save it until the end of the interview, and then let her know.

The Complete Denial of Reality

None of these tips will help you if you refuse to listen to what your customers are saying to you. If you go into a customer interview already knowing what the customer is going to say, that’s most likely what you’re going to hear. It’s called confirmation bias, and it is incredibly hard to avoid.

What should you do? Probably the best thing you can do is to simply be aware that the bias exists and work very hard to go into discussions with as open a mind as you can have. Try specifically to listen for evidence contrary to what you already believe. You can also help combat it by having other people in the room with you, preferably ones who are less invested in the outcome than you are or even people who disagree with you about the product. After the interview, discuss what everybody “heard” and figure out if you are all taking away the same message. If everybody gets wildly different messages from the interview, it may be time to bring in a neutral third party.

Why Is This So Hard?

Learning from customers can be tough. If you concentrate on staying relaxed, neutral, engaging, and quiet, you’ll be most of the way toward being successful at customer development. If you’re wondering how you’re doing, try having somebody sit with you in a session and tell you afterward whether you were committing any of the above sins. But, above all, learning from users gets easier with practice, so get out there and start listening!

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