Real, practical ways to identify customer and user needs (Part 3)

In Part 2, we presented a case of a company with existing products and services and their challenges tackling new opportunities. To address existing products, the digital analytics assessment gives a high level overview but with limitations. To address new products, an approach based on ethnography and observation was more insightful as it addresses the question of motivations and the why’s. In this part, we continue to explore another case and dive deeper into two more methods.


Case: Company A is a technology company with a breadth of software and services in a mature industry. Three competitors directly play in the space with the company in its primary offering. Additionally, the organization has typically been in a reactive mode when it comes to product feature development. Among internal reasons, one was the result of overly relying on sales and business development to deeply understand needs. Here we compare two different methods of user/customer needs with each other and previous:

6. Conduct a competitor product and experience assessment. (Time: 1 hour per product) Sometimes the product team gets absorbed in its own bubble, not being aware of how the competition is evolving in terms of it’s messaging, communications, and delivery of features. It’s always healthy to have an awareness of the competitive landscape. Who are your competitors for a specific offering? Even broader, who are your indirect competitors and what experiences are they delivering to your potential users/customers? This may set expectations. I think of how a consumer focused iPhone set the experience bar in the enterprise environment. Not just assessing the competitor product features, think about the overall offering, experience and journey. The offering starts at the top (discover and learn) and flows through the trial/purchase and even the support experience. Where has the competition executed well and where are the gaps? Visually capture screen shots, look up demos on Youtube/Vimeo, and gather information from whitepapers or live demos if there is a trial. To synthesize the landscape, map out where the competition is along relevant dimensions.

Don’t stop there! While a competitive assessment is one of the ways to hone in on needs and opportunities, I would highly caution to understand the limitation. In some situations, it may not make sense to use the competition as a direct reference to what the customer/user needs are. Without diving deeper, there are risks to basing your own product priorities on someone else’s assumptions for their competing product offering. This leads us to the next approach.

7. Interview your users and customers in-person. (Time: Expect 1 hour per participant interview with significant time spent recruiting, prep work, and synthesizing findings) In part 2, we touched on the ethnographic method by observation. There are different ways to observe and blend the approach with interviews. Sometimes, user/customer interviews are conducted in the context with observation, and sometimes it stands alone. In all likelihood, interviews are the most prominent method that can be used for a broad set of purposes, spanning from market research to user research depending on your goals.

So why not just do interviews? A. Recall cases where users/customers are aware of their needs vs. unaware. If users are unaware of their needs, it’s hard for the participant to articulate their needs precisely. B. Cognitive biases exist between the participant and the interviewer, which can skew the findings (e.g. participant tries to please the interviewer, interviewer unconsciously asking leading questions). C. Another analogy is the case of users/customers saying they have a particular need when in fact it’s another need or you’ve not gotten deep enough to understand the root cause. One of my favorite examples comes from The Simpsons and this is what happens to your product as result:

Even among the risks, interviews are still a great way to uncover user/customer needs. I’ve interviewed many customers doing market research, many users doing user research and usability tests, as an entrepreneur, and of course, as a product manager. In the interview process, I’d like to share my Google Slides presentation covering a few techniques that will result in high quality interviews to uncover insights and needs (Credit: Some of the content was based on University of Toronto’s Ping-Chun Hsiung):

In terms of the questions you want answered, I recommend creating a moderator’s guide template. The purpose of the guide is for YOU to articulate the objectives of the interview, align the goals, and list out c the questions in a script that flows. Here’s how I typically document the guide by section:

Reference Section:

  • Business Goals: What are the business objectives? List out 2–3 goals.
  • Research Goals: List out the research objectives. Are they aligned with the business goals? List out a handful.
  • Audience: Who is your audience? This can be a persona, demographic, or some sort of segmentation. Your recruitment will be based on this information.

Moderator’s Guide (Spoken) Section:

  • Opening statements: Make sure you explain your research goals on a high level in 1–2 minutes. Sometimes it helps to make explicit that this is not a sales call.
  • Questions for interview: Brainstorm! Background to learn about their context, jobs, and role. Write out the questions you would state and check to see that they are according to the effective interviewing techniques and phrasing. Questions related to topics need to be aligned the research goals. Depending on how much time you have (e.g., 30 or 60 minutes typically), you want to be aware how many questions you can have per section. Prioritize based on time. Ask yourself whether it is important to include the question. Remove those that are too similar, redundant, or don’t align with goals. This section will be the meat of the guide.
  • Closing statements: Thank your participant for their time. Ask if they’ve any other thoughts they’d like to share. This is also a great time to ask if they’d be willing for a follow up.

The interview questions are just a guide and the important thing is to have some flexibility given the context. In cases where it’s observation+interview, the moderator’s guide will be much simpler as you’ll be primarily asking the user to articulate what they’re doing and drilling deeper (e.g., what did you do, why did you do that, etc). It can be less structured and more fluid.


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series on uncovering customer/user needs. Of course, there are many other ways and I welcome any comments or suggestions you may have. If any of this has been helpful, please let me know. Remember to share with your friends and colleagues!