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.

Customer feedback can be a wonderful thing, but only if it turns into actionable items that can be incorporated into your development cycle. Don’t collect data just to have it. Go out and get the data that you need to improve various parts of your product. If you’re hearing the same problems over and over again for months at a time, it may mean that you’re not turning your feedback into useful features for users.

Fixing the First Problem You See
This may seem like I’m contradicting the above section, but please don’t run out and fix the very first problem reported by a user. I’ve seen this happen quite a bit, especially when engineers are running or observing interviews. What happens is that an engineer sees a user having a problem and thinks, “Hey, I can fix that!” and is automatically off and running to code a solution. It’s not the engineer’s fault! After all, it’s a great thing to want to fix a problem that somebody is having.

The real issue is that, while it may be a problem for one or two customers, it may not be the biggest problem that needs solving, and running off to fix it can distract you from finding bigger issues. Spending a little time to follow up on the issue with other customers can unearth an underlying problem that could be fixed or a model that needs changing. By investigating reported problems, you can often save yourself a lot of work by fixing several related problems with one elegant solution.

Not Researching Early (Or Often) Enough
User research and customer development are not things that are done at a single point in the development process. They should be done constantly. Too many companies think that user research is limited to one task like market segmentation, usability testing a new product, focus grouping a product idea, or sending out periodic surveys about what new features customers would like to see.

But user research and customer development encompass all of those things and a lot more. Good customer development is an ongoing process that needs to be built into your company’s entire development and release cycle. At some point in the future I’d like to write up the various different types of outreach that are useful depending on the phase of your product, but for now, assume that if you’re not reaching out to interact with a customer this week in some way, you’re doing something wrong.

Not Having a Product Vision (or Not Committing to Changing It)
Perhaps the biggest challenge for customer development is knowing when to say, “I’m going to ignore that piece of user feedback.” I know, I know. It’s incredibly important to listen to your users and add features they need. But the fact is, a product can’t be all things to all people. Adding feature after feature to your product just because customers have asked for them often results in cluttering up the interface and making your product impossible to use.

Sure, listen to your customers and implement new features for them, but if a particular requested feature doesn’t fit comfortably with the rest of your product vision, either don’t implement it or commit to changing your product vision pretty significantly to incorporate it cleanly. And yes, that may mean killing other features that other customers have asked for!

Giving Users What They Say They Want
I’ve covered this before on the Sliced Bread Design blog, but it’s worth repeating. Customers don’t always tell the truth about what they want. They don’t mean to lie to you. They just can’t always answer the question, “what do you want this product to do.”

Sometimes, if you’re not particularly experienced in customer development, it can be tough to make good decisions about what you should really be giving customers. After all, if you can’t trust what they tell you, how are you supposed to make them happy?

The simple answer is to listen to your customers’ problems, not their solutions. There’s more to it than that, but it’s almost always better to listen to a lot of problems and come up with a good solution than to simply implement the fixes or features suggested by users.

What Next?
I really hope that this didn’t scare anybody off from talking to their customers and learning all of the important things that they have to teach you. While getting good customer feedback and acting on it isn’t always easy or intuitive, it’s something that can and should be practiced by people at all levels of your company.

What Do You Think?
Did I miss any common problems that you have had trying to do customer development on your own? I’m interested in hearing people’s stories, good and bad, about how they have managed to learn from their users.

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