Creating a successful product is hard. There are a multitude of factors that have to align just right. The product has to have the right features for the right audience in the right market and be available at the right time. If any one of those factors are off in your planning you end up wasting time and money that may put your business in a difficult financial situation.

Many stakeholders/idea people think they already know how to design a successful product and are more concerned with getting it built and to market as fast as possible. They jump right into production (by focusing on visual design and/or development) without taking the time to validate their idea or learn about the needs of their intended audience. They are basing their designs on guesswork, or worse, existing products they are familiar with and that makes the road to success long and treacherous.

Companies often face financial trouble in part because they over invest in products and features that aren’t relevant to their audience. This can lead to layoffs and budget cuts to remain in business. Many companies base their strategies on optimistic guesses or personal desires and do not have the rationale to back these decisions up. Guesses are expensive. If you get it wrong, you could be out of business as soon as you launch.

Guessing also puts you in a competitive disadvantage from the start. If you don’t understand your customers, you don’t understand their challenges and you don’t know how to serve them. You’re fooling yourself if you think you understand your customers without researching them first. You are not your customer.

There is a way to change your odds of success though. Instead of taking shots in the dark about your customers you can start to learn from them BEFORE producing anything. Customer research is easy to do and can be added to any workflow. And there is a good chance you already have some data collected that can be used to inform the work.

So stop guessing! Start getting the data you need to make better product decisions.
Here’s how.

Research fast

Customer research fits into any role, and workflow, any team size, and any timeframe. There is ALWAYS time for research and a method to fit a budget. The goal is to make fewer guesses and work from an informed foundation.

There are 2 types of research you can do to learn about your customers.

  • Quantitative: This is the type of research you can measure in hard numbers. For example, page visits, bounce rate, conversion percentage. It’s the “what” of behavior, aka “what is a customer doing?”.

  • Qualitative: This is the type of research that tells us the qualities of an experience. For example, interviews can tell us how a customer feels about a product or how they perceive some information. This gives us insight into motivations around behavior. It’s the “why” of behavior, aka “why did a customer do something?”.

It’s always best to use both types of research together. It gives a fuller picture into the customer segment you are trying to understand.

Surveys that impact product design

Surveys are a fast way to learn about your customer because they can be easy to send out, and you can automate them, saving you time and allowing you to run them while you focus on other tasks.

But there is an art to creating an effective survey. GV, google’s venture business has a fantastic guide that will help you avoid mistakes if you are starting out.

Here are some takeaways to create effective surveys

  • Start with clear goals about what you want to understand. And know a survey may not be the best way to reach those goals.

  • Keep your survey as short as possible. Longer surveys generate a lower response rate so focus on the most important questions you want to be answered.

  • Don’t ask for information you can get yourself.

  • Avoid leading questions.

  • Give your respondents room to inform you of additional issues with open-ended questions like “Is there anything else you want to tell us?”

  • Run a test of your survey on a small group before you roll it out to everyone. This can give you a chance to identify areas where things may need to be made clearer.

  • Take your time writing the email asking customers to take your survey. It will have a huge influence on your response rate.

  • Ask if you can follow up with the participant to discuss the responses. This helps with screening for customer interviews later.

Automated Surveys

Automated surveys are great. After the initial setup, survey data flows in regularly giving you fresh data to gain insights from.

If you create your survey using Google Forms the responses will automatically be stored in a spreadsheet which can be shared and viewed by the team.

Types of automated surveys you could send are

  • Net Promoter Score: This survey type quantifies customer loyalty. But know that there are some concerns with this type of survey being harmful.
  • After sign up: This allows you to find out why customers signed up for your product if they are switching from a competitor and the motivation around this action. If you send it within a couple of days of signup the reasoning will still be fresh without overwhelming them during the signup process.
  • After account closing: This type lets you know why your customers are leaving. Is it something about the product or something else? Are they switching to a competitor? Linking to this type of survey from the page confirming their account is closed gives your customers one last chance to provide you some feedback before moving on.

Ad hoc surveys

Ad hoc surveys help teams researching a more specific topic or feature. They can give an overview of customers thoughts on a topic and help you find candidates for interviews.

Asking a quantitative question at the beginning of your survey gives you a way to filter your responses by a metric to evaluate against other customer segments. For example, “How many people work on your team?”

Ad hoc surveys can be conducted in a lot of ways. You could send an annual survey to collect customer perception of your company. Or you could send a survey to guide the development of a feature or new product by asking questions about a specific perceived customer challenge.

Know that you don’t need to survey all of your customers to get results. In fact surveying too many people produce lower responses and more data to sift through that isn’t helpful. Instead, use any existing customer data you have to target specific groups before you send your survey.

Customer Interviews

Interviews are the best way to learn from your customers. Hands down. They can show you emotions that motivate customer behavior, show you how customers use your product, and provide context to scenarios your customers are regularly in. Interviews deliver so much valuable information to help design successful products.

Think of interviews as a conversation about a topic. You are looking to learn from the point of view of your participant. Be inquisitive about learning from them.

But who has time for that? Your time is limited and you probably can’t spend weeks talking to all the customers you want. How can you find the best people to speak with that have the most insight? Look to your survey responses.

Export your survey data into a spreadsheet and filter the results to find the type of customer based on your specific interest:

  • People on a small team
  • People nearby you can speak with in person
  • People who just signed up
  • People who closed their account
  • People that have challenges with a specific feature
  • People who said they would not recommend your product.

When you’ve found customers that qualify for what you are trying to learn about, send them a short email asking to learn more about their responses. Interviews can be conducted over Google Hangouts or Zoom, recorded, and can be shared with the whole team. This is key because feedback is comprehended more clearly when it’s heard directly. Plan on interviews taking 30-45 minutes to collect enough information to work with. And keep an open mind to where that conversation goes, Remember if you are speaking with a customer you are there to learn from them, not to stick to a strict script.

If you’re meeting customers in person know that it can take a bit more time but can provide more information and understanding. You’ll get to see how their day flows, take note of environmental conditions, and see what equipment they use. While it can take more coordinating to make happen, performing in-person interviews can provide much more clarity about the real people you are designing for.

Tips for conducting customer interviews Customer interviews don’t have to be tied to a specific project. You can dedicate a couple of days a month to talk to customers and build this into your default schedule. Keep the number of people conducting the interview between 1 and 3. You don’t want to overwhelm your participant and make them more nervous than they already may be. If you are conducting interviews by yourself use a voice recorder to capture the interview so you can focus on listening to the conversation you are having. Using your phone or your laptop works just as well. Watch for signs of energy change from your participant, a raised voice, or body language, can emphasize what is important to your customer. Take these as cues that there are some strong feelings about what you are discussing.

Research in the background

There are several tools that can collect data behind the scenes to help fill out the picture of audience behavior. Here is the toolkit I use when conducting research for my clients

Google Analytics
This is what I use to identify customer flow through the site or app. The landing page leads are entering into, and traffic demographics like country of origin, the technology used, and how much time visitors spend on site.

This is what I use to evaluate how deep into a page visitors are getting before they leave. It’s also is great for creating heat maps of activity on a page to show areas that are being clicked on.

SurveyMonkey/Google forms
Simple form creation tools for surveys that can be linked to or sent out in emails.

Google sheets
A spreadsheet to collect, filter, and share survey data with my clients and their teams.

All of these have a free to use plan which keeps the cost to get started with low or nonexistent.

Product design has high odds, but the stakes are even higher. If your product fails to get traction with your customers you could be out of business,

The surest way to fail is by basing design decisions on guesses. Successful, research-driven companies are doing just the opposite. They’re succeeding by guessing less. They are finding ways to be informed each step through the design process, by using existing data, setting up workflows to continuously gather feedback and they’re talking to their customers all the time.

Customer research doesn’t have to be an overwhelming academic process. It can fit into any role, any workflow, any team size, and any timeframe. The goal is to make fewer guesses and work from an informed foundation.