A few years back, I read Indi Young’s Mental Models — Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. I was inspired by the detailed and methodical process she outlined to better understand a customer “problem space”.

Unfortunately, it’s not always practical for scrum teams to allocate several sprints to research and map a mental model of the customer. And Indi will tell you “Research Doesn’t Fit into Fast-Spinning Cycles”.

So how do you get some of the directional goodness of mental model into your sprint?

Scrum size it and bake it into acceptance criteria.

Although you don’t have the time or the resources to interview a statistically significant sample of customers for each release, you can interview a handful of customers typically in the early sprints of a release. The interviews can be short and should focus on the “top of mind” problems that customers face.

Review your interview notes and identify similarities in the way customers describe their problems. Pay attention to the statement sequences when they describe their problems. The way a customer describes their problem outlines their thought process.

For example, when I was interviewing customers about day-to-day spending decisions, they would describe a thought process in the same manner and sequence. “Do I have enough? Can I spend money? Should I spend money?” And under each high-level question there was a sequence of related questions the customer might contemplate before taking action.

The customer thought process is, in a sense, a micro mental model: not complete or comprehensive but still valuable for the team. Use customer statements to keep design decisions aligned to the customer’s thinking.

In my example I would ask myself, “How well does our feature address the questions of “Can I spend money?” and “Should I spend money?”

Summarize customer statements and add them to your acceptance criteria to ensure the feature is aligned with the customer’s thinking.

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