Skip to content

“Customer research” doesn’t just mean researching your customers!

August 21, 2010

Who you should study is not necessarily the same as who you should target

Many people espouse the value of “talking to customers” and “doing customer research”*. But a lot of companies – big and small – assume this means one thing. Obviously, “customer research” means studying your customers, right? Not so fast. Even bounding our discussion to the realm of ethnographic-style qualitative research, the answer’s not so simple.

Part of what complicates matters is determining who your customer is. With startups for instance, “customers” might be an idealized construct at this point. Even if you have customers, you may not have easy access to the majority of them. And even more importantly, who you should target early on is not necessarily the same as who you should target as you scale.

These are all big issues. But I’m speaking more broadly:

Beyond your customers, there are many other people that may be invaluable to study.

Here are five such categories of people.

Study the extreme, target the mean

Studying extreme users,^ people who’ve created workarounds for themselves, or exhibit extreme/ uncommon behavior, can yield amazingly fruitful results. The famed sci-fi writer William Gibson said it best:

“The future already exists, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

The extremes can often clarify what the important pain points are, what will be important in the future, and what a strong POV would be. And because of their extreme behavior, studying them can yield a clearer picture than researching the “muddled middle”.

E.g., Quantified Self enthusiasts, open source car hackers, paleo-dieters.

Caution: Make sure you interpret the data for yourself. Use it as inspiration, and scale back to “normal.”

Conversely, you can…

Study non-early adopters

Startups are often focused on early adopters. Not only is it wrong to assume that Early Adopters have to be your early customers (as I argue in this piece about Groupon and Gilt Groupe). Even if you are attracting early adopters, deeply considering the “normals” can help you hone and simplify your offering tremendously.

E.g., The founders of a new kind of social media startup – talk about appealing to the early adopter crowd! – regularly do a gut check as to whether their moms could use their product. They rightly figure that such ease of use and clarity of focus would appeal to their tech-savvy customers as well.

Caution: While there is overlap, different things appeal to those two groups. Much as you wouldn’t expect the reverse, don’t just build for majority and expect early adopters to flock.

A related research strategy is to…

Study non-customers

Find out why they don’t use your product. It could be that they’re using competitors’ products. But often, it’s even better if they’re not using this type of stuff at all! It can be particularly interesting to look at those people who you’d expect to be using such products. What’s their substitute behavior? What are they doing instead?

E.g., Studying tech-savvy writers who don’t blog or tweet could uncover new opportunities.

Caution: Determine your goal going in – it may not be to convert these folks, especially not right away. Don’t lose focus and neglect your core. Regardless, this line of research can still prove insightful in illuminating how you should design your product, and whether you can expand while still delighting the core.

Study yourself

People often design for themselves. That’s fine, but at some point companies need to go beyond this. On the flip side, people often don’t use their own products. They need to ask themselves why not. Obviously, sometimes they can’t – when developing a new drug, for example. But oftentimes they just don’t. They can say, “I’m not the target” … but that doesn’t absolve them completely. They should still use it periodically, if only to gain empathy. There’s an expression in the design world:

Eat your own dog food.

E.g., At Smith and Hawken, they have gardens in their headquarters, and encourage employees to get out there and get their hands dirty. This keeps them close to the products they spend their days creating and selling.

Conversely, if you do use your product regularly, give it up for awhile and see what it’s like. There’s nothing like absence to help discover what you really miss. You might be surprised if you take off the auto-pilot and question your assumptions.

E.g., Awhile ago, an entire team gave up their mobile phones for 48 hours. It made them realize the few moments in time where they really missed them – and clarified what needs were worth designing for.

Caution: Don’t just design for yourself. You’re not necessarily the target.

Study analogs

Finally, research analogous situations. These can be “analog” – that is, low-tech – solutions, but don’t have to be. Analogs may be parallel situations that solve similar needs. Or they may be a group that is comparable in some way. Ask yourself: what are analogous behaviors that could be instructive for me?

E.g., If your target customers are podcast listeners, studying casual gamers may help you understand how another group staves off boredom during their commute.

Caution: You’ll need to interpret what’s comparable, and what’s not about the analog. They won’t be equivalent in all situations.

Study your customers. Just don’t stop there.

I’m not saying don’t study your customers. And I’m not saying all of these techniques will all work all of the time. However, I am advocating for folks to think more creatively about who they should study. Seeing the broader possibilities will inspire better execution.


* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not talking about quant research (e.g., surveys, A/B tests, and the like). I’m talking about qualitative research into what customers want and need. [link: example of why qualitative, in-depth research is important]

^ I’m equating “lead users” with either extreme users or early adopters here. And I’m categorizing early adopters as either extreme users or a startup’s early customers. Bastardization, I know. We’ll save the discussion about the more nuanced distinctions for another time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2011 10:21 pm

    Thanks for the info. The data is very good. To begin a serious study.

    • conradwai permalink*
      January 31, 2011 4:18 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: