Real, practical ways to identify customer and user needs (Part 1)

Do you know the cartoon often used for agile product development where the intended design of the swing gets misconstrued into malformed shapes? Ok, this is not yet another article about agile or waterfall, etc. I want to focus on a broader and yet more practical topic. That is, how does a product management professional identify customer and user needs practically and sustainably? Perhaps your organization or team is new to this. I want to say a few words that could help you get started. If you don’t have a PM in your team because you’re a startup or your org hasn’t been built with a product function, I want to guide you with a few thoughts on implementing a few practices so you can wear that hat to better identify needs. Finally, perhaps your organization has this — box checked, you say. Instead, I want to start a conversation to peel back the layers to understand where the gaps are.

Why is it important to dive deeper into this topic of ways to identifying and understanding customer/user needs? According to a paper by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the cost of errors escalate as it moves from needs and requirements to development and operations. In fact, when errors make it to the operational stage, the unit of cost to fix the error exponentially grows to 29 -500 units. The financial costs, time cost, and resources wasted are tremendous. It pays to spend more time exacting your understanding of customer and user needs to mitigate risks and maximize success.


From my personal and professional experience, I started my career with a foundation in user and market research before I focused on product management. Through my industrial design training at Carnegie Mellon, I learned qualitative approaches to understanding what users need. People call this design research, user research, and design thinking nowadays. After building an advertising business, this led me to a MBA from Rice University focusing on quantitative approaches to understanding customer needs through market research and predictive analytics.

Having spent the past 8 years in product management, I still rely upon my early career experiences in user and market research and design. I’ve worked in 2 mid-sized firms, 2 startups, and a large technology corporation, focusing on building new products and growing sizable software brands. The point is that no matter what lifecycle of the product, size of the organization, and industry you’re in, it starts with understanding the customer/user needs.


What are some practical approaches anyone can take? I wanted to lay out a few different approaches you can utilize today.

Case: Company Z is a leader in its industry that’s quickly maturing as competitors have become bigger through acquisitions and startups entering the market. The company hadn’t traditionally been known for its technological strengths as it was a service-oriented company. The company didn’t consistently have a product management function, and as result, the SaaS product had challenges. Here are some of the approaches I used to uncover user/customer needs:

  1. Set up a Net Promoter Score (NPS) program. (Time: 30 minutes to start survey) NPS is a voice of the customer program where the point is to ask 2 questions to get feedback. “On a scale from 0–10, how likely would you be to recommend (fill in your product, service, or company) to a friend or colleague?” Second, ask why. That’s it. You can use Survey Gizmo, Google Forms, or any other free online survey tool. This works especially well if you want to do this ad hoc or one-time. For those that are more advanced and want greater integration into your SaaS or website, check out Medallia, UserTesting or others. The NPS score itself is (% of 9/10 scores) — (% of 0–6 scores).
  2. Analyze and act upon your open ended NPS feedback. (Time: 2 hours after collecting 20–50 responses) Ok, you’ve collected maybe 30–100 responses or more. Easiest thing to do is just to read every one of them, categorize it, prioritize, and follow up on them. If you have too many responses to practically review each one, I recommend either delegating to owners or divide those in a committee. At one point, I created a sentiment model using a textual analytics application to be more sophisticated. To keep it super simple, try throwing the text into a word cloud application to get a gist of the themes.
  3. Create a persona of your users/customers. (Time: 3 hours to draft of one persona) A persona is an illustration of a person that is a real user or buyer of your product/services. The name is fictitious, but that’s not the point. It’s a tool to hone how well do you and your team know your users/customers. On one slide, put a photo with a name to make it personal. Include information in boxes on the person’s demographics, lifestyle, pain points, challenges, and aspirations. Depending on your situation, understand that the user and the customer/buyer can be one or separate individuals. It’s okay not to know enough to fill out every part of the slide. By creating personas, it helped software engineering, business, and design be on the same page whose need they’re working on. Treat this as a living document where you’ve got to go out, preferably collecting data points by talking to several real persons to recognize patterns to document into the template. Hang it up on the office so everyone can see.

(Continue with part 2)