Friday, February 26, 2010

6 Ways You May Be Failing at Customer Development

Listening to users can be difficult for a small company. Most start ups, especially lean ones, don’t have a dedicated person or team whose only goal is to connect with users, gather feedback, test products, or design new features. Often these roles are being filled by founders, engineers, or product owners. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, having all sorts of employees connecting with users can be great.

The biggest problem I’ve noticed in situations like this is that the people who are talking and listening to users aren’t really very good at it.

You see, learning from customers can be hard. Sure, people will tell you it’s as easy as sitting down and watching somebody use your product or asking a few questions– and don’t get me wrong, that alone can be valuable! But actually getting the right information from customers and turning it into a product can take some training and practice.

What You Are Probably Getting Wrong
Let’s take a look at some of the most common and costly mistakes I’ve seen when people are trying to do their own customer development without much experience or guidance.

Bad Interviewing Technique
There are a whole host of problems that people commonly have when they first start moderating studies or interviewing users about products. I covered five of the biggest issues in this post for the Sliced Bread Design blog, but there are dozens of ways to screw up an interview.

But why does interviewing technique matter at all? Because that’s how you’re going to get information from your customers! Good technique makes it a lot more likely that you’ll be able to elicit open, honest, actionable feedback from your users. Bad technique means you may not learn anything useful or, even worse, that you may bias the user enough so that you only hear what you expected to hear.

Needless to say, it you’ve never run a user discussion session before (or even if you have), it can’t hurt to brush up on techniques like not giving a guided tour of the product, letting the user fail, not leading the witness, asking open ended questions, letting the user explore, and shutting the hell up. There is a lot more to being a successful interviewer, but fixing those few common mistakes will make getting good user feedback a whole lot easier.

Not Turning Data into Action
Once upon a time I did some work for a company that boasted of being committed to customer development. They brought people into the office weekly and chatted with them. They solicited customer opinions in surveys and forums. They did everything right! Except, when the time came to make product decisions, those discussions with customers were often conveniently forgotten, and the company just implemented features with very little regard for the data they had so painstakingly collected.