Teaching a founder to fish: How to understand your customers

Teaching a founder to fish: How to understand your customers

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

There are founders and there are flounders. Understand your customers and you’re already on your way to avoiding the latter.

They say teaching is the best way to learn, so when I got the chance to teach Melbourne’s founders and startups about customer research and how to gather evidence to make better decisions, I jumped at it.

Trying to give someone a crash course in user research in two hours seemed like an impossible task at first. I mean, it’s a skill that’s taken me years to understand myself (and I’m still learning), so how could I possibly enable a room of 60 founders to do this competently and quickly? As any designer will know, there’s nothing like constraints to make you think creatively.

See, the thing about customer research is that you can’t start at the “Here’s how you run a user interview” bit. If you’re not clear on what’s the most important thing to find out from your customers, you run the risk of getting wonderfully structured insights from excellent interview techniques about something that, frankly, isn’t important to you in this moment. So, I had to start there.

Step 1: What’s uncertain right now?

By spending a few minutes alone, founders can brainstorm all the things about their product that they’re unsure about. You could even do this now. I prompted them with question starters like:

  • I don’t know if…
  • Should I…
  • Am I…
  • I’m sure that…
  • How might we…

This sort of thinking begins to elicit examples like:

  • How much will people pay for my product?
  • What is the most important problem to solve for my customers right now?
  • Does my idea really solve my customers’ problem?
  • Should we spend time improving app performance?
  • Should we build a native mobile app or mobile website?

Once these questions are out on the table, founders have something they can start to work with.

Step 2: Prioritise your uncertainty

Once all the things that are worrying a founder are out on the table, it was time to think about which ones have the most significant impact. The grading scale for this is surprisingly simple (although I’m sure that a more in-depth analysis could be done). I ask them to answer the following:

For each uncertainty, how bad would this be if I got it wrong?

  • Very bad: I’d probably be out of business or stop pursuing this idea
  • Bad: I have the time and money to recover, but I wouldn’t be happy
  • Not bad: I’d still sleep soundly if I got it wrong

When uncertainties are ranked in this way, the most important ones bubble to the top naturally. They self-select because thinking about the true value of their impact begins to remove natural personal biases and you’re able to think more objectively.

Step 3: customer/benefit statements

As it turns out, there’s a simple formula I’ve been using over the years to get to the heart of what type of research I need to run. It goes like this:

If my customers told me ___________________
The benefit would be ______________________

What does that actually mean? Let’s look at an example. Say my most significant uncertainty right now was “I don’t know what the most important problem is for my customers now”. I.e. which problem should I tackle first? The customer/benefit statement would read something like this:

If my customers told me all of their problems in priority order
The benefit would be a clear problem to solve first.

Sounds simple right? You’d be surprised how difficult it is for someone to come up with this if they’ve lived and breathed their ideas for any amount of time. Founders shouldn’t feel shame. In fact, much of my time at Cogent is spent helping founders do exactly this. Someone else’s perspective is all it can take that can help unstick you.

Step 4: Pick the right research method

Once they have their customer/benefit statement/s, founders need to start thinking about what sort of answer they’re looking for. There are generally three types to start off with and then an additional question that might come in to play:

  1. Why is a customer doing something?
  2. How is a customer doing something?
  3. What is a customer doing?

Then, how often/how much are they doing it?

If it’s a “why” or “how” type of question, founders need to consider qualitative methods of research. If it’s a “what” or “how much” question, then quantitative methods are generally more useful.

So, using Christian Rohrer’s visualisation of research methods and what they’re good for, founders were then able to easily map their most important problems with the most useful research methods for their own business problems.

Christian Rohrer’s landscape of user research methods.
Christian Rohrer’s landscape of user research methods.

In the case of the question, “What are people’s most pressing problems in priority order?”, qualitative methods like surveys, contextual enquiry and focus groups would elicit the most useful answers. We looking to see what customers are doing, but then being sure to understand how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it too, so we can understand what steps we need to take next.

Through a combination of self-assessment and group discussion, founders were then able to take this unique opportunity to work together and challenge each other’s assumptions and knowledge as well as offer each other some founder to founder advice. As we know, two heads are often better than one, and founding a company can be a lonely pursuit, especially in the early days.

Beyond picking research methods

There wasn’t nearly enough time in a two-hour masterclass to get in to the nitty gritty of how to run research well. And to be honest, there are so many guides on the internet to do just this. But toward the end of the talk, I made sure to cover off some of the most common questions that founders have based on my experience of dealing with founders at Cogent over my time there in the last five years. These included:

  • How do I find customers to talk to?
  • Should I keep asking the same people over and over?
  • How much should I give to participants?
  • How many people is enough?
  • Is the customer always right?

At the end of the day, the key lesson I took away from putting this 2-hour masterclass together is that founders need to make sure that they do the vital work up front to identify what is indeed their most impactful uncertainty. That’s actually the most challenging bit — choosing what to focus on. Once they have those priorities, actually doing the research is much easier because they’ve got the confidence they’re heading in the right direction. It’s far easier to get help executing a small piece of research than it is to truly balance where you should be spending your hard-earned time and money in building your sustainable business when you’ve got so many competing priorities.

I can’t wait to run more of these. I learned so much about myself and even more about founders and what’s weighing on their minds when they’re thinking about customer research. As a small business owner myself, I’m fortunate to be able to empathise even more deeply with people like me so any help I can offer from a career in design excites me.

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