As a company begins the transition from an inside-out, product perspective to an outside-in, customer perspective, someone inevitably suggests “Let’s go talk to the customers to see what they want”. This is a major step because it acknowledges the importance of understanding the customer’s point of view. The next step is to determine what information to collect and how to
collect it. I’ll describe five levels of customer research and as you would guess, there is a trade-off between ease of execution and usefulness in understanding the potential to create profitable value.
 
The first level is what I call confirming your ideas. Usually a favorite customer is asked “Wouldn’t you like it if we added this feature to the product?” It’s quick and easy to ask and can be done in-person, by phone or using an Internet survey. The problem is it’s a closed question you don’t learn much from it. The customer is biased to agree because there’s no perceived cost to him/her. In reality, this type of question really isn’t research; it’s just collecting data to justify an idea. Unfortunately, you‘d be surprised how often this is the only type of research used for product planning.
 
The next level is more open-ended but still very product focused. It’s usually asked in one of two forms; “What features should we puy  in our next product?” or “What new product would you like us to build?” These questions result in a long list of potential features or products that you can debate and prioritize back at the office with engineering. The challenge is customers aren’t in the business of designing products and they really don’t do a very good job of it. For an in-depth discussion of the pitfalls of letting customers define your product direction, I’ll refer you to Clayton Christensen’s excellent book The Innovator’s Dilemma.
 
The third level of customer understanding illustrates an important shift in perspective. It now moves away from your product and toward understanding the customer’s problem or desired outcomes. A typical interview would start with a simple “Tell me about the problems you have in trying to …” Then a series of probing questions drill down into the real heart of the issue. This line of thought has great potential but there are a couple of challenges. First, customers may or may not be able to articulate their problems. Second, it’s difficult to collect, analyze and communicate this type of information to the engineering team so they can work on innovative solutions to what they learned from the research.
 
The fourth level moves from a direct one-on-one dialog to observation. There are a number of techniques such as shadowing that can be used to learn about the customer’s experience. The strength of shadowing lies in anticipating people’s sub-conscious and future needs which are difficult to obtain using the early methods.
 
The fifth level is becoming the customer. Putting yourself in their position and trying to do what they have to do. You can imagine this is the most insightful and offers the potential for the deepest understanding. Your role changes from interviewer of levels one through three and observer in level four to participant in level five. Granted, this isn’t always possible. You can’t for example, become an
airlines pilot or a brain surgeon for a day. Another challenge is in order to understand the total user experience you have to go beyond just the operational. For a software product this can include evaluating, buying, installing, learning, getting support and all the other interactions with the product and the company. This covers a wide range of activities over a long period of time.
 
The further you progress down the levels, the greater insight you’ll have into what customer’s value, the sum of resulting experiences. Another way to think of it is evolving from what product should we build, or what feature should we add, to what set of positive experiences can we provide.

How far have you progressed on this path and what have you learned by gaining a deeper understanding of the customer?