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Talking to Humans: Success starts with understanding your customers

Giff Constable

How strongly I recommend it: 9/10 Last read: January 15, 2018

Solid introduction to the process of designing web products from the lead designer at Etsy. The book covers a lot of incredibly useful stuff like what to expect when designing a product, the differences in workflow compared to client work, and strategies for designing good products. Definitely a must read for anyone working at a startup, working as an in-house designer, or creating their own products.

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My notes and highlights:

Talking to Humans teaches you how to get out of the building. It guides students and entrepreneurs through the critical elements: how to find interview candidates, structure and conduct effective interviews and synthesize your learning. Giff provides ample anecdotes as well as useful strategies, tactics and best practices to help you hit the ground running in your customer discovery interviews.

The art of being a great entrepreneur is finding the right balance between vision and reality.

Every new business idea is built upon a stack of assumptions. We agree with Steve Blank’s insight that it is better to challenge your risky assumptions right at the start.

There are two effective ways to do this:

  1. talk directly to your customers and partners, and observe their behavior;
  2. run experiments in which you put people through an experience and track what happens.

Here’s what customer discovery is not: It is not asking people to design your product for you. It is not about abdicating your vision. It is also not about pitching. A natural tendency is to try to sell other people on your idea, but your job in customer discovery is to learn.

You are looking for clues that help confirm or deny your assumptions. Whether you are a tiny startup or an intrapreneurial team within a big company, your goal is not to compile statistically significant answers. Instead you want to look for patterns that will help you make better decisions.

Entrepreneurs have a tendency to over-obsess about their product to the neglect of other business risks. They also tend to stay inside their heads for far too long.

First, I want you to walk a day in your customer’s shoes and actually go out and buy a pillow. Second, I want you to observe people in the process of buying a pillow.  And third, I want you to talk directly to them.”

“You need to understand your market. How does your customer buy? When do they buy? Why do they buy? Where do they buy?

At this stage, don’t take any of your statistics too literally and don’t let any single number dominate your strategic thinking. Just as we’re not looking for statistical significance at this point, we also don’t want to start treating our results as if they are indisputable facts.

You are in search of a scalable and repeatable business model. Run these experiments and keep in mind that your mission at this point is to learn before you scale. Don’t stop talking directly to customers. Your questions will likely evolve, but no matter what stage you are in, you’ll usually find that your best insights will come from talking to real people and observing real behavior.”

You need to begin with a core set of questions:

The first step in trying to learn from the market is having an opinion about who your market actually is.  I recommend thinking about a few categories:

You might think you are creating a product for “everyone”, but that is not an actionable or useful description in the early stages.

What are the commonalities across your customer base?

Early adopters are usually folks who feel a pain point acutely, or love to try new products and services.

In a classic enterprise sale, you will often have a strategic buyer (who is excited about the change you can bring), an economic buyer (who controls the purse), a technical buyer (who might have approval/blocker rights), and then the actual users of your product. Can you identify your champion? Can you identify who might be a saboteur?

For B2B companies, Steve Blank also recommends that you start by talking to mid-level managers rather than the C-suite.

Go into every customer interview with a prepared list of questions. This list, which we refer to as an interview guide, will keep you organized. You will appear more professional, and it will ensure that you get to your most important questions early.

I like to begin by understanding my most important, and most risky, assumptions.

Personally, I ask these questions:

When you are contemplating your questions, be careful with speculation.

It is more effective to ask your interview subject to share a story about the past.

Your goal is to talk little and get the other person sharing openly.  To that end, it is imperative that you structure open-ended questions, or at minimum follow up yes/no questions with an open-ended question that gets them talking.

An interesting open-ended question, which Steve Blank likes to use to conclude his interviews, is: “What should I have asked you that I didn’t?”

Two of the hardest questions to answer through qualitative research are: will people pay? and how much will they pay?

You can learn a lot, however, by asking questions like: How much do you currently spend to address this problem? What budget do you have allocated to this, and who controls it? How much would you pay to make this problem go away? (this can lead to interesting answers as long as you don’t take answers too literally)

My recommendation is to set up a situation where the subject thinks they are actually buying something, even if they know the thing doesn’t exist yet. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms are used by a lot of teams to test pre-order demand.

The key thing to remember is that people don’t honestly think about willingness to pay unless they feel like it is a real transaction.

You can learn a lot by putting mockups or prototypes in front of people, but, as with all speculation, you should interpret reactions with a degree of skepticism.

If you show your interview subject a proposed solution, you need to separate this step from your questions about their behavior.  Ask your questions about behavior and challenges first, so that the discussion about product features does not poison or take over the conversation.

Some people like to ask, “if you could wave a magic wand and have this product do whatever you want, what would it do?” Personally, I avoid questions like this because customers are too constrained by their current reality to design effective solutions.

[JOSH: This is was a question that was really popular at Cooper when I took their Interaction Design course. I can't remember getting good answers from this question though.]

It is the customer’s job to explain their behavior, goals, and challenges. It is the product designer’s job to come up with the best solution.

Set goals for key questions and track results.

The numerical target you choose can be an educated guess. You do not need to stress over picking the perfect number. It is more important that you set a goal and really track what is happening. Setting a target forces you carefully think through what you are hoping to see, and makes decisions and judgment calls a bit easier as you review your data.

An interview guide is not a script. You do not need to read from it like an automaton. You should feel free to veer off of it if the conversation brings up something interesting and new.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is sit back and watch someone’s behavior.

How to find candidates

Entrepreneurs new to customer development are often intimidated at the thought of approaching complete strangers.  It might surprise you to hear that people are often very willing to help out. This is especially true if you are working on a topic that interests them and you approach them nicely and professionally.

There are three general rules to keep in mind when recruiting candidates to speak with:

If you can connect with people at the moment of their theoretical pain, it can be very illuminating.

You should use referrals as much as possible. Set a goal of walking out of every interview with 2 or 3 new candidates. When you end an interview, ask the person if they know others who face the problem you are trying to solve. If they feel like you have respected their time, they will often be willing to introduce you to others.

Conferences and meetups can be an amazing recruiting ground, because they bring a group of people with shared interests into one place.

I have found that it is extremely effective to ask people for their time, but for later, after the conference or meetup.

Finding interviewees can be harder when you are focused on an enterprise customer.

Asking for advice should be your default method early in your customer discovery process. You will have better luck gaining access. People like being asked (it makes them feel important).

“My name is Steve and [dropped name] told me you were one of the smartest people in the industry and you had really valuable advice to offer. I’m not trying to sell you anything, but was hoping to get 20 minutes of your time.”

Another effective spin on “asking for advice” is to create a blog focused on your problem space, and ask people if you can interview them for an article.

If LinkedIn isn’t helping you and you need to reach high up in an organization, another approach is to call the CEO’s office. Your goal is not to talk to the CEO but actually their executive assistant. His job is to be an effective gatekeeper, so if you explain, “I’m looking to talk to the person who handles X”, they will often connect you to the right person. The added advantage of this method is if you end up leaving a voice mail for your intended contact, you can say “Jim from [CEO’s name]’s office gave me your name”.  Dropping the boss’ name tends to improve response rates.

Another approach is to send a targeted email into an organization with a very short email that asks for an introduction to the right person to speak to.

if you are a student or researcher, say so. As an extra incentive, you might also offer to share the results of your research with your interview subjects.

If a method isn’t working, try something new.

Finding bored people stuck in line is a common recruiting hack.

One effective tactic is to create an online form or landing page and build up a list of people to contact.

Running an interview session

I recommend the following guidelines for running a productive interview session:

  1. Do your interviews in person

    Talking in person is by far the best approach. You can read body language and build rapport much easier.

    The next best approach is video conferencing, because at least you can still read someone’s facial expressions.

    Phone calls should be your method of last resort (sometimes there is no choice), and I would entirely avoid using text-based mediums like email or chat.

  2. Talk to one person at a time

    I believe in talking to one person at a time.

    I strongly recommend avoiding focus groups for two reasons:

    1. you want to avoid group think;
    2. you will really struggle to focus on one person’s stories, and drill into areas of interest, when you are juggling multiple people.
  3. Adding a note taker

    Bringing a note taker will allow you to stay in the moment without worrying about getting every bit down on paper. You can stay focused on the topics, the body language, and where to take the conversation.

    If you have to take your own notes, that’s not the end of the world. It can sometimes make for a more intimate conversation. Just remember to write up your notes right after the session or you will lose a lot of detail and color that you weren’t able to write down.

    You can also ask the interview subject if you can record them, and many people are willing.

    I highly recommend that you play back the audio and write up your notes soon after the session, both because writing up notes will reinforce what you learned in your own mind, and also because written notes are easier and faster for both you and your teammates to scan.

  4. Start with a warm up & keep it human

    When you kick things off, concisely explain why you are there, and thank them for the time. Launch into things with one or two easy warm up questions. For example, if you are talking to a consumer, you might ask where they are from and what they do for a living.  If you are talking to enterprise, you might ask how long they have been with their company.  You don’t want to spend a lot of time on this stuff, but it does get the ball rolling.

    Have a written or printed list of questions, but don’t rigidly read from your list. Be in the moment. Make the interview subject feel like you are really listening to them.

Go into each session prepared to hear things that you might not want to hear.

If you ask any speculative questions, be prepared to listen with a healthy dose of skepticism. I far prefer to get people telling stories about how they experienced a problem area in the past. In particular, try to find out if they have tried to solve the problem. What triggered their search for a solution? How did they look for a solution? What did they think the solution would do, before they tried it? How did that particular solution work out?  And if they are struggling to remember specifics, help them set the scene of their story: what part of the year or time of day? Were you with anyone?

The researchers at Meetup.com, who borrow from Clayton Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done framework, use an interesting tactic to help their subjects get in story mode. When they are asking someone to take them through a purchase experience, from first thought through purchase and then actual product usage, they say: “Imagine you are filming the documentary of your life. Pretend you are filming the scene, watching the actor playing you. At this moment, what is their emotion, what are they feeling?”

One of the best indicators that the market needs a new or better solution is that some people are not just accepting their frustration with a particular problem, but they are actively trying to solve it.

For someone to try a new product, their pain usually needs to be acute enough that they will change their behavior, take a risk, and even pay for it. If you feel like you are seeing good evidence that someone actually has a problem, it is worth asking where it ranks in their list of things to solve. Is it their #1 pain, or something too low in priority to warrant attention and budget?

Try to shut up as much as possible. Try to keep your questions short and unbiased

Don’t rush to fill the “space” when the customer pauses, because they might be thinking or have more to say.

Anytime something tweaks your antenna, drill down with follow up questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications and the “why” behind the “what.”

For important topics, try repeating back what the person said.

Purposefully misrepresent what they just said when you parrot it back, and then see if they correct you. But use this technique sparingly, if at all.

If you are a beginner at customer discovery, do a dry run with a friend or colleague.

Getting Feedback on Your Product

Separate the storytelling part of your session from the feedback part. People love to brainstorm on features and solutions, and this will end up influencing the stories they might tell.  So dig into their stories first, and gather any feedback second.

Disarm their politeness training. Ask them up-front to be brutally honest, and explain that it is the very best way for them to help you. If they seem confused, explain that the worst thing that could happen is to build something people didn’t care about.

Finally, keep in mind that it is incredibly easy for people to tell you that they like your product. Don’t trust this feedback.

There is no right answer on how polished your early mockups need to be.

Just don’t wait for perfection, because initial product versions rarely get everything right. You need to spot your errors sooner rather than later.

How Do You Make Sense of What You Learn?

The first step is to make sense of your patterns.

To find your patterns, first you need to track the data.  This is easy if you bring a good notetaker to the interview, but otherwise, make sure that you write up your notes as soon after your conversation as possible.  Make them available to the entire team with Google Docs or the equivalent.

At the start of every entry, note the following information: Name of interview subject Date and time Name of interviewer In person or video conference Photo (if you have one) Then at the start of your notes, include basic descriptive information of the interview subject.

Our brains like to influence our thinking with cognitive biases, especially filtering results for what we want to hear. Calculating actual metrics helps fight against that dynamic.

Bring your team together and arm them with sticky notes and sharpies.  Give everyone 10 minutes to jot down as many patterns and observations as they saw during their interviews.  Put all the sticky notes on a wall and have someone sort them into groups. As a team, discuss the patterns, and then re-review your assumptions or business canvas and see what might need to change or require greater investigation.

Customer development interviews will not give you statistically significant data, but they will give you insights based on patterns.

You don’t want to react too strongly to any single person’s comments. You don’t want to take things too literally. But neither do you want to be bogged down trying to talk to thousands of people before you can make a decision.

Ultimately, you are better off moving fast and making decisions from credible patterns than dithering about in analysis paralysis.

It is not the job of the customer to design your product. It is yours. As you are gathering information and making decisions, act like a intelligent filter, not an order-taker.

While all entrepreneurs get their fair share of naysayers and skeptics, you have to be wary of the opposite problem in customer development interviews. People will want to be helpful and nice, and your brain will want to hear nice things. As you are weighing what you have learned, just keep this in mind.

You don’t want your only source of learning to be talking to people.

You don’t really know the absolute truth about your product until it is live and people are truly using it and you are making real money from it.  But that does not mean you should jump straight to a live product, because that is a very expensive and slow way to iterate your new business.

Get into the market early and begin testing your assumptions right away, starting with conversations and proceeding from there. It will dramatically increase the odds that you will create a product that customers actually want.

Talking to people is powerful. It tends to give you your biggest leaps of insight, but, as I keep on repeating, what people say is not what they do. You might show people mockups and that might give you another level of learning and feedback, but reactions still need to be taken with skepticism.  Concierge and “Wizard of Oz” experiments, where you fake the product through manual labor (see Glossary) will give you stronger evidence, because you put people through an experience and watch their actions. The next layers of the onion are to test with a truly functional “Minimum Viable Product” (see Glossary) and beyond.

How many people to talk to?

I advise that you never stop talking to potential customers, but you will probably evolve what you seek to learn.

Customer Development and lean startup techniques are some of the most powerful ways to increase your odds of success, but they are not a replacement for vision.  You need to start with vision. You need to start with how you want to improve the world and add value to people’s lives.

When you are trying to reach someone you do not know, there are a few things to remember:

So how do people screw up customer discovery? Here are a few anti-patterns:

  1. You treat speculation as confirmation

    Here are some question types that I don’t like — and if you ask them, you should heavily discount the answer: “would you use this?” “would you pay for this?” “would you like this?”

    As contrast, here is a behavior-focused interaction: “Tell me about a time when you bought airline tickets online.” “What did you enjoy about the process? What frustrated you about the process?” “What different systems or methods have you tried in the past to book tickets?”

  2. You lead the witness

    Leading the witness is putting the answer in the interviewee’s mouth in the way you ask the question. For example: “We don’t think most people really want to book tickets online, but what do you think?”

  3. You just can’t stop talking

    There is nothing wrong with trying to pre-sell your product — that is an interesting experiment unto itself — but you should not mix this in with behavioral learning.

    If you do try to pre-sell, don’t just ask, “Would you pay for this?” but rather ask them to actually pay, and see what happens.

  4. You only hear what you want to hear

  5. You treat a single conversation as ultimate truth

    You’ve just spoken to a potential customer and they have really strong opinions. One instinct is to jump to conclusions and rush to make changes. Instead, you need to be patient. There is no definitive answer for how many similar answers equals the truth. Look for patterns and use your judgement. A clear, consistent pattern at even 5 or 10 people is a signal.

  6. Fear of rejection wins out

    This is one of the biggest blockers to people doing qualitative research, in my experience, because of fear of a stranger rejecting your advance or rejecting your idea. Many excuses, such as “I don’t know how to find people to talk to,” are rooted in this fear.

  7. You talk to anyone with a pulse

    Instead, define your assumptions around who your customer will be and who your early adopter will be.

  8. You wing the conversation

    If you go into a conversation unprepared, it will be evident. Write up your questions ahead of time and force-rank them based on the risks and assumptions you are worried about.

  9. You try to learn everything in one sitting

    Rather than trying to go as broad as possible in every conversation, you are actually better off zooming in on a few areas which are critical to your business.

  10. Only the designer does qualitative research

    It is ok to divide and conquer most of the time, but everyone on the team should be forced to get out and talk to real people.

  11. You did customer development your first week, but haven’t felt a need to do it since

  12. You ask the customer to design your product for you