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Customer discovery during quarantine

Steve Blank has a famous quote about customer discovery, “there are no facts inside the building so get the hell outside.” His view was that budding entrepreneurs needed to get away from their desks and computers and go speak to people about their problems and learn more about the current behaviours they use to solve/manage them. By doing qualitative research, you find out more about how your possible product could fit into a person’s life, however we are now in a time when getting out of the building is not possible. So how can product managers and company founders do qualitative customer discovery? One method is virtual ethnography.

Virtual ethnography is a research method where you observe how people behave online. You can document patterns of social interaction and people’s perspectives on a wide range of issues. People are interacting in online communities now more than ever along with the majority of websites using tagging to track visitors, virtual ethnography can offer a realistic insight into people’s opinions and how they are behaving.

So how is it done? I recently completed customer research into a project about how people save money for major life events. I initially looked at google trends to look at how google searches of certain keywords has changed over the past few months. From that data I could see a change in trend, including an increase in people searching for financial related terms. I followed various hashtags on both twitter and Instagram to read through various posts and pulling quotes and insights and putting it into a spreadsheet. I also used community boards such as Reddit as well as ones specific to finances such as to get further data. I also used a free trial of Spark Toro to find frequently used words by people who discuss money and finances online. I repeated these steps many times before completing a theme analysis, pooling the insights and quotes into various key themes or take away. I was also able to complete several 1–2–1 interviews with people by tweeting them directly asking to set up a call.

So how useful is the data? Some people argue that online identities do not reflect how we behave in person, this is certainly correct, but with products and services being built in a digital setting, it is extremely important to learn about a person’s online identity. Are they complaining online about the problem you’re looking to solve or searching on google for possible solutions? Secondly there has always been an argument around in person interviews of various cognitive biases such as interview bias and response bias. The book Everybody Lies, written by former Google Data Scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, argues that much of what we thought about people has been dead wrong. The reason? People lie. They lie to their friends, their significant other, doctors, surveys and themselves. By analysing people’s digital footprint, we can learn more about their interests and opinions then if we asked them directly. One area to be cautious however is that people also lie when presenting themselves on the internet, they are presenting their ideal self but when they are typing into search engines, they are no longer presenting their ideal self. With all consumer research, it is important to always consider the sources of the data your observing and try to understand why.

One final point about this method is ethics. Right now there is no formal code of ethics for conducting research using virtual ethnography and there is also no way for participants to opt in/out of this type of observational research. In my own customer research, all information was in public domain, I ensured that sources of data were removed once I had finished my research and it is not possible to identify a person from any insight pulled and I believe that’s fine but before conducting your own research do consider if you’re comfortable with the possible ethical questions a study like this could create.

Thanks for reading and I hope you found this interesting. If you wanted to find the tools I mentioned above you can find links to them below and if you want to learn more about building products please connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter

Adam Butler is a freelance strategy and innovation consultant with a BSc in Psychology. His interests are in blending behavioural science with digital technologies and has six years experience in the fintech industry. He will receive his MBA from Imperial College, London in 2021.





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Adam Butler

Adam Butler

Business Strategist, Fintech, Insurtech, Transport. BSc in Psychology and MBA from Imperial College, London

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