What is customer discovery?

Customer discovery means identifying your first customers. It is done by taking your main assumptions about who your customer is, the exact problem you are solving for the customer; and how the customer will buy from you—and turning those assumptions into hypotheses which you will then test (mainly through interviews with potential customers).

The MIT Global Start-up Labs incubator has an important rule that all their start-ups have to adhere to; they have to talk to at least 90 people in the initial stages of customer discovery. The rationale is that the first 30 people will help teams validate and gain a deeper understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve, the next 30 will give them insights on how the problem could be solved and the last 30 will give them an idea of how much people would be willing to pay for the solution.

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have” – Steve Jobs

Interviews are a means of engaging people to extract information, explore ideas and develop insights about the user. Interviewing or talking to humans is the most common method of gaining empathy in Design Thinking.  Design Thinking enthusiasts will always tell you, get out of the building! Talk to some customers! This is absolutely correct but once you’ve left the building and are on the street hounding folks, what next?

Firstly it is essential that you have the right questions but that’s not all. You also want to ensure that you conduct your interviews effectively so that you extract the right information from the user. These are my top tips for how to effectively conduct interviews in the customer discovery phase of your innovation journey:

Do your interviews in person

The quality of your learning can vary a lot depending on the method of communication. Talking in person is the best approach so far because it helps you read your customers body language, and it makes it easier to build rapport. In the situation where your customer is too busy to meet in person, video conferencing is the next best option. Platforms such as Appearing, Skype and Manycam are great for video conferencing.

Talk to one person at a time

Make time to conduct separate interview sessions with each customer, avoid focus groups. Focus groups usually lead to groupthink and even worse, it makes it very hard to concentrate on one person’s story when you are juggling several people. I do, however, always bring a note-taker with me. A note-taker also allows you to stay in the moment without worrying about capturing all the information.

Build rapport

Stay warm and build rapport when you kick things off.  After you’ve thanked them for their time and explained why you are there, get to know them a little better. For example, if you are talking to a consumer, you might ask where they are from and what they do for a living.  If you are talking to enterprise, you might ask how long they have been with their company.  You don’t want to spend a lot of time doing this but it helps people feel comfortable and gets the ball rolling.

Disarm Your Own Biases

Human beings have an amazing ability to hear what they want to hear (this is called “confirmation bias”).  Go into each session prepared to hear things that you might not want to hear.

Look out for solution hacks

One of the best indicators that the market needs a new or better solution is that some people are not just accepting their frustration with a particular problem, but they are actively trying to solve it.  Maybe they have tried a few different solutions. Maybe they have tried hacking together their own solution.  These stories are a good indicator of a need in the market.

Listen more than you talk

Try to listen as much as possible and keep your questions short and unbiased. It can get very awkward when an interview subject pauses for a little too long, but don’t rush to fill the space when the customer pauses, because they might be thinking or have more to say. Remember you there to learn and not sell!

Interviews are a critical tool for any company or entrepreneur using Design Thinking as a way of work, especially during the customer discovery phase. It helps you uncover needs, find surprises and gain empathy for your customer. Hopefully, these tips have given you some new approaches for how to get more out of this powerful tool!