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Following on from Justin’s post last week on the empty hamburger dilemma, I’ve been doing some research into what tools and resources are out there on customer development, and who’s using them. 

Unsurprisingly, it’s the usual suspects who have been putting this methodology into practice: start ups and the people advising them. As Justin pointed out, it doesn’t look like this approach has been adopted by agency land yet, primarily because their source of dollar is the client not the customer, which tends to derail their priorities.

But how can we take some of the lessons that have been learned and implemented by the start up community and apply them to the agency worldview? Here’s a few thoughts pulled together from what other people are already doing.

1. How to find your users

 The first step in the process of customer development is finding them. Cindy Alvarez, Product Manager at KISS Metrics, has some useful thoughts on this over on her blog. Adopt a diverse approach and and don’t be snooty about the methods you use (Facebook ads anyone?). It certainly makes sense to set up a Google Alert and trawl through Twitter for mentions of keywords relating to your problem/solution. If you are working for a pre-established brand, as we often are at Made By Many, she suggests putting out a call on Craigslist and equivalents to find customers of the brand and their competitors. As you do more research you’ll start to map where it is that your users hang out and what channels they are comfortable communicating through – Twitter, forums, comments on blogs, Facebook, plain old email. Basically you are a glorified stalker. You’re also a bit like a bee gathering snippets of user nectar from each point you touch down on, which then feeds back into your hypotheses about your problem/solution.

2. How to pull off the customer interview

Once you know who your users are your next step will be to engage with them to find out what they want. But as Cindy Alvarez points out most people don’t know what they want:Once you know who your users are your next step will be to engage with them to find out what they want. But as Cindy Alvarez points out most people don’t know what they want: points out most people don’t know what they want:Once you know who your users are your next step will be to engage with them to find out what they want. But as Cindy Alvarez points out most people don’t know what they want:Once you know who your users are your next step will be to engage with them to find out what they want. But as Cindy Alvarez points out most people don’t know what they want: points out most people don’t know what they want:points out most people don’t know what they want:

Customer development isn’t asking customers what they want – it’s seeking to understand what they need, how they work, where their pain points and highest priorities are.  Customers may not be able to articulate what they want, but they can’t hide what they need.

When you’re looking to validate the hypotheses you’ve developed, a key tool in your armoury will be the customer interview. The kinds of questions you ask and how you phrase them will have a huge impact on how useful these interviews are. Here is a template I’ve taken from Cindy’s blog:

Snapshot from Cindy Alvarez's excellent post

Clearly these are targeted towards the kinds of questions a start up would ask. You would want to tweak the focus if you were testing a campaign idea but I think a lot of the basic premises still hold true – ask open-ended questions, position the customer as an expert and make sure you shut up and listen. In his blog post on customer interviews, Sachin Agarawal, Director of Marketing at Blueleaf.com, advises starting your questions as far back as possible so that you don’t assume the problem you are trying to solve is an actual problem for your users. 

My magic phrase in every customer development interview is ‘that’s interesting – tell me more’.

Sachin Agarawal argues that the main aim of the interview is to get your users to talk around the problems you’re trying to solve and, in this instance, tangents are God. Interview questions should be treated as springboards to provoke thought and discussion, not as rigid structures to be adhered to at all costs. It’s likely that the real gems will only be revealed when your users follows their own thought associations rather than those dictated by you. In the same vein, Sachin also advises deliberately misrepresenting an interviewee’s opinion to get them to pinpoint more clearly what they mean.

3. Pivots and how to make sure you’re solving the right problem

The approach to customer development taken by the start ups I’ve been looking into is heavily influenced by their Agile and Lean approach to the whole process. As David Weekly from pbWorks says in this presentation “success is adaptation”.

The simple logic behind this argument is that when developing a product or service you should be guided by the stories of your customers, but more than that, you should expect to be surprised by the users and uses. This is where pivoting comes into play. Essentially you need to to be able to respond to how people actually want to interact with your product or service. You won’t be able to do this unless you are prototyping and frequently testing your ideas with your users.

Pivoting can happen during the early stages of customer discovery and validation, and in some ways it’s easiest at this stage when you’re still feeling your way to figuring out what you want to create (unless of course you’re overly cursed with a ‘vision’). But it’s also hugely important to be able to pivot at a later stage, after you’ve gone through the first couple of iterations to get your product or service (or campaign) out there. And it’s then that it’s hardest to do.

The pivoting case studies I’ve been looking at were all able to pivot even if it meant completely abandoning what they’d first set out to build or entirely resegmenting their audience. KISS Metrics thought they were building an analytics tool for social application developers when actually, after a couple of pivots, they found out they were building a product for marketers (I hope they weren’t too disappointed). You can read more about their lessons learned in this slideshare.

So there you have it, that’s what I’ve discovered so far on how to get to know your customers. If you’re naturally nosey I have a feeling you won’t find it too hard.

Cath Richardson

Cath Richardson

From ancient Greek heroes to digital communities, Cath is fascinated by people and what makes them tick. At Made by Many, she works on strategy, project management and service planning. She is particularly interested in the intersection between sustainability, technology and human behaviour.

@ohrworm