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Luna Guest: “Talking to Your Customers” by Justin French

By October 12, 2011No Comments

Talking to your customers is crucial to the success of your product. Call it Customer Development, User Centered Design or Market Research, just make sure you’re doing it.

It’s not hard to do

Find a customer, or a potential customer, and start talking. If you’re nervous or lack the confidence to do this one-on-one (you’re absolutely not alone), grab your product manager, designer, tech lead, CEO or anyone else in your team and do it together. Reduce the formality and ceremony over a coffee or a beer. Start over email, on the phone. Invite your most trusted customers to talk among themselves in a private email group.

Starting is far more important than how you start. I don’t need to prepare too much either – it’s pretty easy to get people to talk about themselves and their work.

What not to do

Don’t talk about features. Asking them what features they want (or letting them push the conversation that way) is a complete waste of time. There’s two predictable outcomes, both of which should be considered negatives:

  • You walk away with a checklist of stuff you need before they’ll buy
  • The customer walks away with a list of reasons not to buy your product

What to do instead

Ask them about their job, tasks, workflow, process and constraints. Ask them how they get stuff done. Ask them what they do, not what they need. The outcomes from this are far more positive:

  • You know if this is the sort of customer you want to help.
  • You build empathy for this customer.
  • You have a much deeper insight into the customer’s true needs.
  • You have real scenarios to draw upon and real problems to solve.
  • The customer builds a relationship with you and your product far beyond the software.
  • The customer talks directly with someone who can shape the product.
  • The customer invests time in your product, and has an interest in it’s success.

If you must talk about features, always dig deeper. Shift the conversation away from the implementation to the reasons behind it. Instead of talking about that epic reporting widget they need, talk about why they need it, and how that helps them get stuff done.

Push them to articulate the problem, rather than prescribe the solution. It’s your job as a product designer to aggregate and consider the problems from many customers and design your own solution. Yes, it’s your product, you design it.

After listening to the problem, you may already have features that can help. This is awesome! You’ve just avoided a conversation about “missing features” and showed them how your product can help them right now.

If you find a real gap in your product, don’t instantly promise a feature to fill it. Instead, promise to spend time thinking about it. Ask them if they’d mind a follow-up conversation (if this is important to them, they’ll be excited to help).

“What they do” is far more valuable and interesting than “what they want”.

(Re-posted with thanks to Justin from

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