Inspiration Precedes Innovation

How working closely with customers leads to actionable innovation. A few practical tips conducting customer observations and in-depth interviews.

Customer “Follow Me Homes”

First, build rapport with your customer. Make them feel comfortable even though you are in their home — or their office.

Goal: to place ourselves in the full experience through the eyes of the user

In Paris, meeting with the first QuickBooks customer in France. He was telling us a story about his coffee pot.

Create the right environment

Remind the participant (in this case, a small business owner) that there are no right or wrong answers. We are there to learn how they run their business and use our software. The conversation could include:

  • Introductions
  • How did they start their business
  • What does a typical day look like
  • How long have they been in business
  • What are their goals/aspirations

Set-up the observation

Next, observe. Observing a customer performing a task while running their business is much more insightful than them telling you what they do In this example, we had our customer wait to go through the “first use” experience until we could come watch and observe.

Goal: carefully watch and examine what people are actually doing

Two people observing the customer (I’m just taking pictures since I can’t speak French)

Next, an in-depth interview. To learn, we must listen more than we talk.

You want to understand a person’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations, so that you can determine how to innovate for him or her.

By understanding the choices that person makes and the behaviors that person engages in, you can identify their needs.

How to Interview

  1. Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, ask people why they do or say things. The answers will sometimes surprise you. A conversation started from one question should go on as long as it needs to.
  2. Never say “usually” when asking a question. Instead, ask about a specific instance or occurrence, such as “tell me about the last time you ______”
  3. Encourage stories. Whether or not the stories people tell are true, they reveal how they think about the world. Ask questions that get people telling stories.
  4. Look for inconsistencies. Sometimes what people say and what they do are different. These inconsistencies often hide interesting insights.
  5. Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Be aware of body language and emotions.
  6. Don’t be afraid of silence. Interviewers often feel the need to ask another question when there is a pause. If you allow for silence, a person can reflect on what they’ve just said and may reveal something deeper.
  7. Don’t suggest answers to your questions. Even if they pause before answering, don’t help them by suggesting an answer. This can unintentionally get people to say things that agree with your expectations.
  8. Ask questions neutrally. “What do you think about buying gifts for your spouse?” is a better question than “Don’t you think shopping is great?” because the first question doesn’t imply that there is a right answer.
  9. Don’t ask binary questions. Binary questions can be answered in a word; you want to host a conversation built upon stories.
  10. Make sure you’re prepared to capture. Always interview in pairs. If this is not possible, you should us answer questions in which you become the expert.


Last, and probably most important, you must take time to debrief as a team. This is the opportunity to share your notes, thoughts, and impressions. Taking time to distill your observations into insights is ultimately why we work with customers. It’s the critical step in taking customer empathy into action — closer to a solution that improves your customers lives’.

Every time I engage with a customer, I write down and share two things

  1. What surprised you?
  2. What pain did you see”