Real, practical ways to identify customer and user needs (Part 2)

In Part 1, we talked about the significant cost of not understanding what your customer and user needs were. We presented a case of a company and its challenges, and how we used Net Promoter Score as one way to understand their needs. We also talked about creating personas as an illustration and the process to document and assess what we do and don’t know about our customer or user. In this part, we continue to explore another case and additional analytical and qualitative methods.


Case: Company Q is a public company that had grown through mergers and acquisition, and through its success, has the majority of the market share of a very fragmented market. Its industry touched on many customers but the industry was not seen as innovative in any way. Q was a thought leader in trying new ideas. However, the methodology of approaching new product development relied on partnerships and a collaboration with external consultants for product vision. Building in-house capabilities was an imperative to allow sustainable growth of strategic initiatives. Here are examples of approaches I used to pinpoint user/customer needs:

4. Conduct a digital analytics assessment. (Time: 1 hour to review report if you’ve analytics already instrumented) If you’ve ever heard of tools like Google Analytics, this is what I’m referring to here. Many people tend to gravitate towards this method as the primary tool to determine user and customer needs. I would caveat that this approach can give a high level understanding and should not be the only approach because it doesn’t answer the why’s of the customer needs. It’s great at answering the “what” and “when” is happening. You can surmise and hypothesize why visitors to your digital product are doing what they’re doing. If you have thousands or millions of users, you may need to rely on this approach more heavily. Some type of products (e.g., Ecommerce) with well-defined end outcomes may be a better fit than certain SaaS or mobile products which may have more unique end outcomes.

Still, this approach is easily accessible if you have it already instrumented and reports set up. Adobe and Google Analytics gives reports (e.g., conversions based on goals), metrics on your audience (e.g., what their browser they’re using) and acquisition data (e.g., acquired from Google Ads, campaigns you are running, and etc.). Google Analytics is a free application that takes one line of Javascript code you drop at the bottom of your website; paid version gets you more functionality. Adobe is an enterprise solution that is more involved, and if you really need go this path, I recommend looking at Adobe’s Dynamic Tag Manager to streamline the instrumentation process. While this approach gives you a lot of data, it’s important to ask what are your goals and the relevant metrics to you, what problems your users/customer are trying to solve, and what metrics best address and measure these goals. All parts must be aligned. There are many other analytics tools that are among my favorites such as Kissmetrics (e.g., cohort analysis), mixpanel, Looker, and Segment to name a few. However, this is beyond the scope of this series.

5. Observe your users/customers using your product (Time: Expect 1 observation hour per participant with significant time spent recruiting, prep work, and synthesizing findings) In contrast to the analytics approach, a more feasible approach may be this qualitative approach. In many design, lean and startup circles, this is a common tool to gather user/customer needs. Designers and user researchers call this the ethnographic approach where it’s about going into the user/customer’s environment and seeing how they live and work. This approach is borrowed from anthropology and social science. Entrepreneurs may do this on a shoe string and B2C products may have an easier time finding participants. B2B products may not be as easily accessible without relationships. Large companies such as IDEO, frog, P&G, and Intel utilize this method to successfully understand users and envision innovative new products and concepts. It’s possible to carry out this approach even if you’re not a large organization and if you’re willing to put in the effort.

For those with a product or just a prototype, the activity is about putting your product in front of your audience and observing them walk through the usage/flow end to end, understanding how they achieve or stumble in certain areas. For those that don’t yet have a product and need to understand the pain points of a particular persona, this is also a great approach. For digital products, the ideal case would be to observe the participant in-person to read their body language (80% of communications is not spoken). When it’s not practical (e.g., where there’s not enough of a persona or customer in one place), I’ve utilized methods such as using remote presentation software as an alternative such as Go To Meeting, zoom, and etc. to share control of the screen/cursor.

As you can tell, some of my favorite work has been in the qualitative side because the richness of the feedback and the ability to prod the motivations of the users. It’s delightful when user’s “get it” or clear when it’s not. However, this approach is challenging for the product manager or entrepreneur. It’s very involved and requires substantial investment in time and some costs if there is travel or an honorarium involved. You won’t be able to collect a lot of feedback by participant. Initially, my team spent a month of planning/recruiting, travel, 2 weeks of research in-person, and another 2 weeks to synthesize the findings to capture 8 participants. We were able to accelerate efforts in the next phase by conducting remote sessions but that was still multi-week long. Generally, you can’t do it internet-instantaneously (Yes, even with an online service but with some exceptions) because of the planning and debriefing.

There are a lot of details that go into the preparation and successful execution of this approach. The important initial step is to fully understand who is the target audience or participant in your study. Because there’s going to only be a handful (and hopefully more over time), it’s important to recruit the right set of participants. In a blend of market research methods with user research, don’t just get anyone’s feedback. Have a reason why you’ve recruited a particular person. If your product is for nurses, don’t go observe someone that doesn’t fit that role or profile. Observe several participants for each persona or some relevant grouping.

(Continue with part 3)