Don’t discover; observe

It’s not that problems are invisible; it’s that no one is looking for them.—Steve Johnson, Under 10 Consulting.

I often chat with company leaders who ask me how to do customer discovery but I always find it a confusing conversation. They don’t seem to understand my questions. “Who did you build it for?” “What problems are you solving and for whom?”

At a conference I heard many people talking about technology and products and features, but very few talking about markets and segments and personas. Our industry continues to embrace the idea that “if you build it, they will come.”

There’s a belief that technology is difficult but finding customers is easy.

sprinklerThe funny thing is there are so many products begging to be re-invented. Look at the Nest thermostat and Nest Protect (their smoke detector). Beautiful! And when will they reinvent my sprinkler system controller?

One technique that product managers and product marketing managers need to embrace is customer observation. More than customer discovery and more than having domain knowledge, research through customer observation is critical. It means working alongside a customer (or potential customer) to truly understand their work. How long does each step take? And why do we have to perform each step?

Before you can re-imagine a workflow, you have to understand what customers do and why.

I’m using a new vendor management system that is totally bewildering. I’m sure it will save someone’s time eventually. But for now, none of us using the system seem to know how to use it. The documentation and on-screen clues are non-existent. But I’m motivated to learn it since I have to use it to get paid. I’d love to have the developer watch me use it, just to see how confusing it really is. Clearly none of the people who developed the system are the ones who have to use it.
“Listen to the customer” is just wrong.

You’ve heard marketing people say it for years and years: “Listen to the customer.” And they are just wrong. You don’t want to “listen;” you want to observe. People cannot describe what they do in words. Watch their actions instead.

Customer observation is a critical skill for product management. Is it part of your Product Playbook? For more on customer interviews and observation, get my free ebook on Customer Interviews.

About the author

Steve Johnson is a recognized thought leader and storyteller within the technology product management community. At Under10 Consulting, he helps product teams implement product management in an agile world. Sign up for his inspirational newsletter.