Thomas Dunn, Product Researcher at Buffer

Hey, here!

Thanks for joining us today! Today, we will be chatting with Thomas Dunn, Customer Research at Buffer!

Here’s more from Tom:

Hey folks! My name is Tom and I am a customer researcher at Buffer 😊 I love learning and working closely with customers so we can improve the product and build new things. I’m currently focussing on growth in a generalist role 😊
I’m currently based in beautiful Cambridge with my fiancé for her studies.
In my free time I play rugby, jam on piano/guitar and travel as much as possible 😊

Hey, Tom ! Thanks for being here!

Heya Alfred and community 😊 Thanks for having me here today!

Customer Research

What is customer research about and how does it work at Buffer? Why is it important? — Alfred Lua

I think that overall, it’s the process of challenging our assumptions and learning from customers so that we are building things that have the biggest impact with the least amount of resources.

I think that back in the days when it was just Joel on his own, he used to reach out to new customers and talk to them. He would listen to their frustrations and learn from their experiences so that it gave him a better idea of what to build next.

Another part of research at Buffer is embracing invalidation I think. We love to invalidate ideas because it helps us to narrow our focus and ensure that we are investing our resources where it matters. We like to think that 1 hour of customer development can save us 10 hours of engineering time 😊

I think that research at Buffer consists of several practices including customer development, usability testing and QA and growth experiments 😊

Also with a research team of 6 now, we have developed different approaches in our various teams. My teammate Roy, for example, is wearing multiple hats with the Pablo team right now as part of its ‘Startup’ structure which is super cool. He is doing some marketing, product, research whilst other researchers on the team might focus purely on user experience or customer development 😊

That sounds really cool 😊 What tools do you use that you like the most? — Diogo Neves

Great question, Diogo! 😊 For booking calls easily I love using Calendly! I find that it makes it super simple for us to schedule calls with customers.

For running surveys in-app I love to use Qualaroo too 😊

What got you into customer research? — Matt Aunger

To be honest, I knew barely anything about customer research before I joined Buffer. I had done a little bit of market research work after college for some banks and after working on my own startups and projects for a few years, saw the opportunity at Buffer and the team very kindly gave me the chance to pick it up and learn as I went along 😊

What do you know now that you’d love to have known when you started at Buffer and would help anyone starting in customer development too? — Diogo Neves

That’s a great one, Diogo!

I think that when I started, I was a bit scared of data and the growth side of things as I wasn’t very good at maths at school. I’ve learned since then to really embrace data and make decision not just based on qualitative research through my calls and surveys, but also through hard numbers 😊

I’m keen to really improve on the data side and embrace this more as time goes on 😊

Tom, would love to hear: is there an example that comes to mind where Customer Development helped dramatically influence the direction of a product, or helped shift gears in some major way? 😊 — Marc Anthony Rosa

Great question, Marc Anthony.

I think it happens a lot and one example that comes to mind is video uploading on Buffer. I loved speaking to customers that had sent in support tickets asking for this and over the following months, we literally built this feature with these customers side by side pretty much. Running designs past them, jumping on calls to share screens etc. It really helped us to feel confident about shipping to everyone 😊 It just felt so helpful and comforting to have customer feedback at every stage of this product journey

Hey, Tom, what are the most important things to do in customer development in your opinion? — Vlad Caluș

That’s a great one, Vlad 😊

I think that overall, one of the most important things to me personally is jumping on calls with customers and listening to them. I find that when I am unsure of what to do next and hit a brain block, jumping on calls with customers and listening to their stories, experiences and insights helps incredibly. And it never ceases to amaze me how much direction I get from these customers 😊 (which include all of you 😊).

What’s the most awkward/ strange customer call you’ve been on? — Matt Aunger

That’s a great one 😊 I’m lucky to speak to customers across the world from super diverse backgrounds and every call is completely different. When visiting my parents in Bristol, my mother has rushed into the room mid-call and shouted ‘Tomasito! (her name for me) Por favor puedes lavar los platos!!!’

Translation: Tom! Please come and wash the dishes!

With our remote set-up, I find that funny and interesting things happen a lot 😊

How much preparation goes into a research call? Are they well organised with a rigid structure, or are you more likely to see where the flow of a conversation takes you? — Chris Joyce ⚡

Thanks a lot, Chris 😊 That’s a great one! I find that it varies. If I go into a call with a very specific agenda then I find that having lots of preparation helps. For more open and exploratory research I love being able to ask very general questions so I can avoid bias and go where the conversation takes me 😊

One thing that really helps me before any calls is to write down a hypothesis and some assumptions, which can help me with direction. In the past, I have jumped on a bunch of calls without doing this and found that I struggled to move forward with something actionable afterwards.

So even if I end up invalidating most of my assumptions, it feels great to have some sort of structured list of thoughts before going in 😊

Not sure if this question applies but, has it ever happened that feedback from customer development on one part of the product was in conflict with another part (by adding value to a segment of the users would remove value from another) and how did you solve the conflict? — Diogo Neves

That’s such a great question, Diogo! I think that with so many customers now, we are naturally going to have segments that clash at times. And it really helps to zoom out and look at the data to see how many customers are impacted big picture wise.

One example of this is when Facebook was going to remove Facebook groups support. We braced ourselves to lose this feature and I jumped on some calls with customers that used it. I found that they were extremely upset and frustrated naturally. When reporting this to the team, Sunil and Joel dived into the data and found that a tiny percentage of our customers used groups and whilst it was certainly painful for them and didn’t feel great, we were ready to remove it as we had learned that the majority of customers were unaffected by this.

Facebook kindly let us keep groups though 😊

Do you allow support any level of personalisation to make different segments happy, but still move in the same big picture direction? — Diogo Neves

I think that our plan structure with Individual, Awesome and Business is the main way we cater to different segments 😊

So, given that you talk to people you barely know on a regular basis, I’m guessing it takes quite a lot of confidence? Was this something you had before you started out, or was it something you learned over time? — Matt Aunger

Most of my past projects and jobs have required a lot of 1:1 time with people I didn’t know 😊 Including 1.5 years of cold calling with a bank. Initially, I struggled a lot as rejection was a big part of the job and over time I gained more confidence 😊 And by the time my journey brought me to Buffer.

I felt more confident talking to new people a lot 😊 I must add that you and the rest of the community are just soooo friendly, kind and generous. And I have never been nervous or scared about talking to a Buffer customer 😊 really blows me away honestly.

Maybe weird question but are there any researchers with non-native English accents, at Buffer? — Diogo Neves

Really great one. We certainly do 😊 My teammate Octa recently moved from the Happiness team to Research as a native Spanish speaker 😊 And we are excited to explore and embrace diversity more as part of our research and be more mindful of different languages and cultures 😊

Customer Development Resources

Heya, Tom! 👋 I’ve been thinking, customer research is trying to understand a user’s frustration, what they want, their needs and things in those lines, right? I’d love to learn how you model your questions to derive answers without falling prey to confirmation bias? 😊 — Vikash Koushik

Really great one, Vikash! And avoiding confirmation bias is a challenge we are constantly working on 😊

We try to keep questions very open and non-leading.

For example, the first question I tend to ask is simply “how do you use Buffer?”, I find that the first question often yields the most insights too and I love sitting back and doing the listening whilst the customers talks 😊 From there I love to probe deeper with questions like ‘how did that feel?’ or ‘what were you doing before that” etc.

I wrote this blog post on the Buffer blog a while back about it 😊

I tend to use these 4 questions for most calls and add more spontaneous questions throughout the call 😊 These 4 questions really work well as a foundation and were inspired by Cindy Alvarez’s book ‘Lean Customer Development’ 😊

I’m really excited to be attending a bias workshop with her on Thursday in Manchester 😊 as this is something we are keen to learn more about for sure!

Speaking of blogs, I’d love to hear what blogs/books you would recommend people to read if they wanted to get better at understand users and ask better questions, Tom? — Vikash Koushik

Man that’s a great great question. The first book I read about customer development specifically is ‘Lean Customer Development’ by Cindy Alvarez. It’s a fantastic book and I love how it makes customer development accessible for anyone, regardless of experience and background. It really helped us to create and shape the role of researcher at Buffer too 😊 And feels like one of the pillar stones of the role 😊

Another resource I love is Steve Blank’s blog. He is seen as the founder of customer development and has lots of amazing content on there 😊

Also, Cindy Alvarez has a great blog too!

Not to mention, the amazing folks at Intercom. I love reading their blog 😊

Remote Working

What advice do you have for anyone looking to switch into a remote working environment? And for people interested in opportunities with Buffer? — Audrey Bigelow

I think that creating a routine helps a lot when starting remote work personally 😊 When I started freelancing a few years ago, I was initially quite overwhelmed and struggled to structure my day. And I experimented with different routines and ways of working until I found a set-up that worked well for me 😊 I have noticed that remote work looks different to everyone 😊

And we have really embraced that at Buffer 😊 Some team members jump on video calls with beautiful babies in their arms. And some team members might be on a train or in a hammock 😊

With joining the team, I applied a year before I joined and it wasn’t the best fit at the time. The email I got from Caro was so warm, encouraging and kind that it didn’t feel like a rejection at all. And it gave me the chance to apply again at a better time 😊 And gave me the confidence 😊 Quite a few team members have applied multiple times too which is so cool 😊

How did you get in contact with Buffer? 😀 — Diogo Neves

I think like most people, I found the open blog and just fell in love with the culture, focus on positivity, transparency and had to learn more. I also used Buffer as an Awesome plan customer for one of my own projects 😊

Personal Life

I’m keen to hear about your musical journey, Tom! Or whatever it is you like to do when you’re not doing everything you just mentioned. — Sami Grady

Sorry for the late reply! Thanks for asking 😊

Music has always been a big part of my life. And looking back, I was really ungrateful as a kid for it. I used to moan and cry about going to piano lessons and my mum would take me to festivals, concerts and gigs all the time. I grew to love it with a passion and have loved playing piano for the past 17 years 😊 and guitar for the past 13 years.

I have no doubt that music got me into this industry too 😊 I joined a band when I was 16 and as an unsigned band, I had to be resourceful learn basic code, design, marketing and all sorts of skills. Very similar to a startup 😊 I loved the hustle of it 😊

Awesome to hear that music plays a big role in your life. How specifically do you feel music has helped you with your role? Do you think it helps you relate to customers/people better? — Kat Loughrey

I think it has helped massively, Kat 😊 I think that listening skills can be developed and improved and my musical background has helped me to focus on tiny little nuances and details as part of research 😊

What’s your definition of success, Tom? — Mateo

Happiness 😊

Favorite quote, Tom? — Mateo

Ooo, Mateo, good one! There appears to be no evidence that Einstein said this but

I have always loved this quote 😊

Also, my mother put a picture on the wall in my bedroom when I was a kid with this quote:

I didn’t do so well at college and it gave me confidence that I could find happiness and success despite that 😊 I will forever be grateful to her for that encouragement. And like to think that we all succeed in different ways 😊

Tom, I think you might have broken the record for the most number of questions answered and answering them so well! Thank you so much for the valuable insights! 👊

Thanks to all for attending this Live Chat and for the great questions!!

Thanks so much for setting this up, Alfred😊

And for all of you for joining me today. Damn time flew by so quickly.

I just have to say, so many of you have jumped on calls with me before and I’m really grateful for the help you have given me, the laughs we have shared and also the friendships that have blossomed out of this.


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