Regardless of whether you’re part of a large or small company, the process of releasing a new product into the market is always risky. You never know how your customers will react to what you’ve put out there — that is, until you’ve already spent anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.
That’s why it’s so important to do customer development early — to get ‘out there’ and talk to potential buyers of your software, mobile app, or web product.
But what exactly does this mean?
‘Customer development’ is a term that every product manager or engineer has, at some point, heard. The challenge, however, is getting started. Here are 5 tips — from leaders who have been exactly where you are now — to guide you along the way.
1. Do Customer Development Early, Before You Even Build.
This tip comes from Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup — and it’s a lesson that he’s learned the hard way from his time as technical leader at IMVU, an online gaming website that has grown to more than 3 million users and a virtual goods catalog of 6 million items.
Despite IMVU’s impressive numbers, the product was far from a Hollywood success — requiring multiple iterations before the platform began to take off. In The Lean Startup, Ries explains several mistakes made in early iterations of the product: features that people didn’t want and a completely misguided product to market fit.
In hindsight, an early customer development process would have helped his team circumvent these challenges altogether by directing focus to the features that users wanted most.
2. Build Processes That Take Your Team Outside of the Office.
When it comes to user research, phone calls and screencasts won’t cut it. You need to spend time with your customers — at their homes, in their offices, and face-to-face. That’s because context plays an important role in the customer development process, as location, time of day, and setting are major variables that influence how users will engage with your product.
Even if you don’t have a full-fledged product yet — maybe you have a mock-up, wireframe, or clickable prototype — you should talk with your desired users to get feedback, face-to-face, at every step of the way.
Customer development processes should be team driven — everyone from your organization needs to be a part of this critical research process. Build cross-disciplinary teams that represent a variety of backgrounds within your organization, and make sure to share your thoughts and feedback after each customer development round.
3. Ask open-ended questions that inspire customers and prospects to lead the discussion.
The goal of customer development is to know what you’re doing wrong — and what you can do better. Your customer-facing conversations should, consequently, push you and your team past your comfort zones to help you ‘see’ what you couldn’t before.
Instead of asking questions that evoke simple yes/no responses, find ways to inspire open-ended, back-and-forth dialogue. For instance:
- How do you use ____?
- What frustrates you about ____?
- What is a tool that you wish you had but don’t? What features would it have and why?
By asking fewer questions, your conversations will be deeper and more eye-opening — you’ll encounter perspectives that are surprising and new. Your customers will be guides to help your team see past what you’re working on everyday.
To get started, work with your team to identify a focused set of 3-5 questions. These should be closely tied to your company’s product/market fit, value proposition, and core features. Understand what your users need, and work backwards to design the ideal solution.
Your customers are your ultimate consultants. Look beyond the perspectives of your own company and team to prioritize the perspectives of the people who will ultimately buy your product.
Now it’s your turn to join the discussion. How does your team build customer feedback into your product development cycle? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.