Researching Customer Needs

03.10.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course Becoming a more strategic product manager by Todd Birzer


Welcome to Lesson 5.

In our first lessons, we looked at the work of product management, which by design spans both the tactical and strategic. The problem is that we let the tactical overwhelm the strategic. This course is about finding a healthier balance.

Developing a deep, intuitive understanding of your customer needs is a foundational element of excellent product management. A gut-level understanding of customer needs won’t make you a strategic product manager, but you can’t be strategic without it.

Our goal is to develop a deep understanding of the articulated and unarticulated needs of our customers (and potential customers). What are they trying to do? What pains are they looking to avoid, what gains are they seeking? How are they solving this today? What’s working and not working? What would they like to see? And underlying this is a series of “whys.” Why is this important and what motivates them?

One of the simplest and most direct ways of getting these answers is ethnographic research, which focuses on interviews and observation of people at the place where they use your product.

Let’s start with the basic steps of conducting this research, and then we’ll talk through some tips and tricks for success.


Steps for Researching Your Customers

1. Start by clarifying your objectives. A key goal should be to understand your customers’ needs and motivations. You may also want to test a few product concepts to get their reaction (more on this in Lesson 9, “Discovery and Delivery”).

2. Recruit people for interviews. Focus on the market segments you are targeting, and reach out to current customers, as well as potential customers. People who turned you down and went with a competitor are also good to interview. Sales teams or account management teams can often help connect you with these different sets of customers.

3. Develop a questionnaire. Start by introducing yourself and making the purpose of the research clear. Next, ask broad, open-ended questions about what they are doing today and what problems they are trying to solve. Ask a number of whys to understand their deeper motivations. Find out what is working and not working today. Toward the end of the interview, you can share some future product concepts to get their reaction.

4. Conduct the interviews. Follow your questionnaire but be flexible. If your customers say something you didn’t expect, dive in and follow your curiosity. Observe the customers’ environment to pick up on clues they aren’t articulating. Have them show you how they use your product (or your competitor’s product), and watch them work.

5. Capture your notes quickly after the interview. These interviews are all about detail, and if you wait a day or two, your memory won’t be as fresh (I know mine isn’t) and you’ll miss insights.

6. Tease out key themes and insights from all your interviews. I’ll talk more about this in the next lesson. Share your conclusions with your team.

I’ll pass along a few additional tips and tricks to make your research successful: Keep all bias out of your voice as you ask questions, listen and observe far more than you talk, and do this research together with one of your development partners (e.g. an engineering manager). Also, be careful of sales reps, who by nature are biased in their client interactions (they want to make a sale).

I find this research good fun; in fact, it is one of the best parts of product management. Hope you enjoy it!

Next up: analyzing customer needs.

Talk to you then.

Todd Birzer


Recommended book

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover


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