Anyone working in product development needs to think, feel and live like a customer to truly understand what they need to do. I’ve worked in digital for over a decade, but all too often I’ve heard the phrase “you are not the customer” used (usually incorrectly), like a carefully calibrated torpedo to blow any argument out of the water, even if it was valid. There are an endless number of organizations with mission statements saying they are customer focused - note any organizations where the customer is an abstract entity or a poster on a wall will generally lead to a product not delivering to customers’ expectations. We had a saying in my time at Barclays “what would Ethel do?”, more on that later.
Few months ago, I watched the film “What Women Want” (don’t judge me!), where Mel Gibson gets special powers to read women’s minds. Amongst other things, he uses this power to gain insight into women’s needs and find the product fit that solves problems. As a product person we need a similar superpower to answer the question, what do customers want?
So how do you get this product superpower without some divine intervention from a superior being or a freak electrical accident? We could rely on gut feeling or luck, the Lone Ranger product owner who just "knows" the right path to take. This is like winning the lottery, if you get it right you will have a huge impact. However, the odds are the same, but it’s rarely going to be right and it will probably fail. Or, we could just look at what our competitors are doing and follow them. For instance, when Apple launched the iPhone, competitors were quick to copy, and those that didn't lost significant market share (such as Blackberry). So, we do need to keep up to date with market trends. But this approach has 2 problems:
- At best, we'll only ever be as good as our competition
- At worst we'll miss out on new market opportunities
So, we need something better than gut feel and following the competitors.
We can look at our products, how our customers use them, where there are pain points and what friction we've created and fix these pain points. This is a valuable thing to do and I would argue is a hygiene factor in any product or service. For instance, on the mobile app developed by my team, we are constantly looking at what customers are telling us, reviewing data and system logs and resolving the issues we see, usually before the customer comes across it. But the problem with this is that it doesn't tell us where to go next. What is the next wave of product development?
There are 100’s of frameworks out there, most attempt to do the same thing, customer focus, divergent thinking and creative problem solving. My general view on all frameworks is that they need to fit into the context of your organization, culture, priorities and deliverables. Keep what makes sense, adapt what doesn’t quite fit and put on ice the stuff that might be a bit too blue sky for your organization. Only introducing moonshots like an intravenous drip – measured, constant and considered. So, let’s look at some of these frameworks that can help you realize, “what do customers want”?
Here we might try and divide our customers up into groups of similar characteristics maybe based on behavior, gender, age and profession. Usually a picture and a name is given to the personas such as ‘Ethel a 70 year old pensioner’. We include things like Ethel’s goals, aspirations, likes and dislikes, and print it out and put in on a wall. Personas attempt to force people to think about customer and can give valuable insights. Especially at the start of the journey of what customers want, something is always better than nothing in this context. However, customers evolve as your product matures and if your personas are not refreshed with real customer data, they will become stale and you’ll end up making solutions that may get a lukewarm response.
This is a framework that can be used to understand what customers want or need in a structured way. Design thinking has been around since the 50s and 60s with names like creative engineering and systematic methods for designers. As head of innovation in my past I extensively used the double diamond framework of divergent and convergent thinking to drive solutions that were effective and not necessarily obvious.
But design thinking does get a lot of criticism, especially in that it oversimplifies the problem. Design thinking only works when you adapt it to your organization, and you are clear on your goals. Do you want to explore the art of the possible or build something that can be launched to customers or both? A few gotchas I have seen repeatedly in design thinking is when you exclude technology from the fun and games. If technology is absent from the design thinking process, then all you can deliver are very pretty slide decks with data. Additional knowledge might be an outcome however, this offers very little immediate value for the customer. Conversely if designers are absent from the process then the result is functionally working products that aren’t intuitive and require a manual to use. You need to ensure you are clear with the goals and bring all the right people to the party to make it work.
Jobs to be done (JTBD)
This is my all-time favorite framework and can be used in conjunction with any other framework. It has changed the way I look at product roadmaps and how I understand customers. JTBD, pioneered by late Clayton Christensen (a legend in his own right who recently passed away), is the process a consumer goes through searching for, buying, and using a product. For example, Google was designed for the job of finding information, not for a search demographic, just as Henry Ford didn’t consider the job to be a faster horse, he solved getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.
The job has a lot of requirements, not just functional but also emotional and social, which suggests that context and circumstances are important. To understand the job, you need to study customers and find out what they are trying to accomplish, especially under circumstances that leave them with insufficient solutions relative to available processes and technologies. What jobs have ad hoc solutions or poor solutions? When you see customers piecing together solutions themselves, these are great clues for innovation. Christensen says people buy any product to get a job done. The best example he gives is describing market research he and his team did to understand fully why people bought milkshakes. It’s probably worth noting job defined market is generally bigger than a product defined market. As an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) practitioner I have a whole toolbox of techniques that I use to define the JTBD, taking into account function, emotion, personal and social factors. Answering questions such as:
- the job your product is hired for,
- why it may get fired, and
- why your customer switched to another solution.
Knowing what products are in a customer’s consideration set for a job, gives insight into what products a customer considers as competition for their JTBD. If you remember anything about JTBD remember this, they are completely neutral of the products and services you create. While a customer JTBD remains fairly stable over time, your products and services should change at strategic intervals as you strive to provide ever increasing value. As Clay used to say, “at a fundamental level, the things that people want to accomplish in their lives don’t change quickly.”
Till this day I still get messages from customers I have met along my own product journey telling me their ideas and their JTBD, even after I have left the company. It is true you are not your customer, however when you spend enough time speaking with customers, studying data, deep-diving into customers values and what they are trying to accomplish, you are able to achieve neural resonance with them. An almost super power to figure out what customers want and need. One of the most important skills of a product person is to be humble and never assume you are the customer. With ownership comes responsibility, when things are good you feel elated and when things don’t work you need to get your game face on peddle through it. Build great products that solve real customer problems and make the world a better place.