Stay Close to Your Customer

Susannah Fox
3 min readDec 18, 2015

I recently received an email from a young man who wanted my advice about how to create an information resource that would serve people like him, who share a certain health condition. I wrote back that in my role as the Chief Technology Officer at HHS, it is not appropriate for me to advise individuals, but I can recommend the principle that I have adhered to throughout my career: Stay close to your customer (and don’t assume that you are a typical customer of your own product).

Here’s a story to illustrate:

Way back in the 1990s, anthropologist Diana Forsythe conducted fieldwork in an artificial intelligence lab that was tasked with creating an information kiosk for newly diagnosed migraine patients. Yes, a kiosk. A big box with a screen that would sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

The idea was that patients could walk up to the kiosk, punch in questions, and get some answers before or after they saw their doctor. It was a nice idea, ahead of its time in some ways. But when it launched, it was a failure. Patients didn’t use it after their first try. Why? Because the kiosk’s designers had not asked patients what they wanted to learn about migraines. They relied on an interview of a single doctor to tell them what he thought patients should want to know.

As Forsythe wrote:

“The research team simply assumed that what patients wanted to know about migraine was what neurologists want to explain.”

The mismatch was complete. The kiosk failed to answer the number one question among people newly diagnosed with migraine: Am I going to die from this pain? It’s an irrelevant, even silly question from the viewpoint of a neurologist, but it is a secret fear that people may have felt comfortable expressing to a kiosk.

If the designers had spent time with the target audience, they may have discovered this — even in just a few conversations or interviews. Even better, if they had created a prototype of their solution and invited recently diagnosed migraine patients to react to it, they would have found out how far off the mark they were.

These are the principles we teach in the HHS Ignite Accelerator program which is open to HHS employees who want to explore and test an idea.

For example, HHS Ignite Accelerator teams are encouraged to conduct 50 interviews of their potential customers over the three-month period of developing a prototype. Teams typically pivot two or three times thanks to the feedback they receive. One of my favorite lessons learned by one of our teams from a food-inspection division of the FDA is that their coworkers enjoy getting out of the office to buy the meat to be tested. They wanted help, instead, with all the manual data entry associated with their work. The team switched their focus and delivered an innovation that was welcomed by their “customers.”

So take my advice and the advice of every successful entrepreneur and design thinker: Test your idea with potential customers and — this is key — listen to them, especially if their feedback is not what you expected.

To learn more about the HHS Ignite Accelerator program click here.

Featured image photo credit: Melvin Gaal on Flickr

Originally published at on December 18, 2015.