How to Listen to Customers

How do you hone in on what users really need?

Quite by serendipity I’ve come across a few articles in the past week about listening to - and ignoring - users in the product development process.

The first came from my friend Jonathan Alexander in a post to his blog:

So whether dealing with customers or just people off the street, it’s important to remember that not everyone’s opinion should be treated equally.  The product designer needs to find the nodal points that actually connect to where they want to take the product, to the audience they want to reach.  This doesn’t mean that we should only seek feedback from people who match our target customer profile, but instead it means that the designer must be able to decide which feedback will be relevant for target customers.

By way of example, Jonathan references this Slashdot post from 2001 announcing the launch of the iPod - “No wireless.  Less space than a nomad.  Lame.”  There’s some early market feedback worth ignoring.

At Yahoo!, I was constantly frustrated by the Slashdot crowd’s seemingly innate ability to hate your product for not being Linux or Google.  Spending too much time in the Slashdot echo chamber not only gives you a headache, it can screw up your priorities.  (For more Slashdot love, check out this post from Jeremy Zawodny, who finally loses his patience and coins a new word in the process - “Slasholes”).  I’m with you Jeremy.

The other article comes from the Creating Passionate Users blog and is entitled Listening to users considered harmful?  The CPU writers can be a bit treacly for my tastes, so read it with a grain of salt.  But they’re correct in stating that users will often ask for one thing and want a different thing entirely. 

It’s not that users are lying (usually), it’s just that they don’t know what they want when they don’t know what’s possible.  Very few consumers in the early nineties asked for a handheld organizer that forced the user to learn a special alphabet, yet the Palm Pilot was a runaway success.  And as the Slashdot example shows, very few hipsters in 2001 thought that an undersized, overpriced MP3 player was worth a second glance.

So how do you hone in on what users really need?  You talk to people who represent a heterogeneous cross-section of your target population, consider their built-in biases and perspectives and triangulate from there.  In my experience, I’ve found it helpful to talk to users who represent the leading, middle and trailing adoption populations in my market as well as influential observers.

Here’s what to consider with each.

Influential Observers

Call them “influencers,” “hipsters,” or “mavens”.  These are the super-early adopters who have a deep perspective on your market and your product.  They’re often not target customers, but they have rich insights into how your product will be received. 

Where they’re good: keeping you from stepping in your own manure.  Influencers have an intuitive handle on what other hipsters get excited about, and what they hate.  They talk to lots of people, read a lot and try a lot of things.  The most important asset they offer is preventing you from committing a serious faux pas that could kill your product.  Like launching a web site in 2005 that only works in Internet Explorer.  Or releasing a company blog that doesn’t have comments enabled.  They can also give you an early warning of competitive products or companies that might be relevant.  And unlike most customers, they’re usually brutally honest.

Watch out for: influencers like to run with the crowd so you need to know how to balance the feverish, often polarizing reception you’ll get (“it rules!” or “it sucks!”).  Learn how to filter “cool” from “useful,” especially when it comes to technology and user interface.  Beware of the influencer’s boasted ability to channel the “average user”.  Don’t believe it.  Nobody who lives in Mountain View and spends their free time blogging about Ajax knows a whit about average users.  None of us do.

Leading Adopters

You usually know who your leading adopters are.  In many cases, they were the first customers you found.  They’re usually genuinely excited about your product and your company and eager to help make the product better.  Listening carefully to your early adopters can serve as an early warning system for what the majority of users will want in the future.  To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky - they help you skate to where the puck will be.

Where they’re good: the problems they’re having are problems everyone will have.  When a power user describes a problem they’re encountering in your product, you can bet a lot of other users will come across it at some point.  Leading adopters also understand your product deeply, and can describe what they want in richer detail, using the terminology you’re familiar with and the capabilities of your product as background.

Watch out for: early adopters are usually very excited about your product and very eager to help you succeed.  That’s great for your ego, but it can be very bad for your product development process.  Many companies have been lured to their doom by a very small, well-meaning and vocal group of power users who fooled the company into thinking they were gaining real traction.  Also, power users rarely describe a problem, they usually ask for a specific solution.  Since they understand the product so well, they prefer to speak in features, which can mask the underlying problem.  For example, an advanced IT user might ask for a preference setting that allows them to hide a feature in your product from their users.  That might be an easy feature to ship, and you’d be tempted to do it.  But if you dug deeper, you might learn that their asking for this because there’s a serious usability problem with the feature in question, and hiding it is the best way they can think of to avoid being pestered by confused co-workers.  In this case, you’d be better off fixing the underlying problem than delivering the feature your early adopter asked for.

Middle Adopters

You might be tempted to call these folks “average users” but there’s no such thing.  The majority of your users probably fall into this category, but be careful to lump them into a pile - they’re far too diverse.  The fact is, these folks are your most valuable asset from a product development perspective.  They’re also the ones paying the bills.

Where they’re good: your product has been designed for them, so they’re the best equipped to shape your roadmap.  You get the most out of them when you get them talking about pain - what is painful about what they’re doing today and what would help eliminate the pain?  A patient rarely knows what prescription they need, but they usually know what hurts.  Middle adopters need interactive dialog.  They won’t just start talking unaided like the influencers or the early adopters, so you need to bring them out with lots of open questions and “what ifs”.

Watch out for: these users are often reluctant to say anything negative.  You need to give them permission to be brutally honest.  In my experience, they’ll usually apologize to you for problems they’re having with your product - “I am kind of dim” or “I must not have read the documentation closely enough”.  Rule - when a middle adopter user starts apologizing, it’s your fault.  Since these customers aren’t as comfortable or familiar with technology, getting to the real problem can sometimes feel like an archaeological dig.  But keep at it.

Late Adopters

Unless you have huge market share in a mature market, these people probably aren’t your customers.  You’ll want to talk to them to get a sense of what’s preventing people from using your product.  Are they fearful or just skeptical?  Late adopters are the sanity filter for your customer research.

Where they’re good: they can help you appreciate the power of status quo.  As product developers, we are great at convincing ourselves of the royal ineptitude of the incumbent solution and the absolute withering pain under which our soon-to-be-freed subjects stand to be liberated.  Nothing like a conversation with a late adopter to throw cold water on that.  Working in the wiki space, I’m sometimes startled to hear these people say things like - “you know, emailing around a bunch of Word documents doesn’t bother me that much”.  But poke a bit and you’ll gain an understanding of what they really care about - “I like emailing documents because I can control who sees them”.  (Ahh, control and security!).

Watch out for: be careful when they tell you what they want.  They know what they like about what they have today, but they’re not as good at articulating what they’ll need tomorrow.  And don’t sweat yourself to death.  Ultimately late adopters move when somebody else tells them to, or when something appears to be a foregone conclusion.  The only way to influence them is to win the majority.

As you can imagine, many product developers make the mistake of only talking to leading adopters, or worse yet, influencers.  Why?  It’s more fun.  They love your product, they’re passionate about it and they know how to talk to you in a language you understand.  Plus, we product developers are usually early adopters ourselves, so they’re kin.  Don’t fall into that trap.  The only way to get a complete picture of what it will take to make your product successful is to talk to a wide cross-section of users, and triangulate from there.

Originally published: September 21, 2005

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Ken is a partner at GV where he provides product and engineering support to more than 300 portfolio companies including Uber, Nest, Slack, Foundation Medicine, and Flatiron Health. Prior to joining GV, Ken was a group product manager at Google. In his years as a PM at Google, Ken led product initiatives for Docs, Calendar, and Google Mobile Maps.

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