3 Steps to understand your customers

3 Steps to understand your customers

All too often we come across companies – some of which we have ties to – that are in midst of developing unbelievably cool technologies and (what they would call) innovations that leave the customer out of the equation. For as much as human-centered design and customer development is in the news and broadcast all over social media, when we humans get it fixed in our heads that our idea is ostensibly the “Best. Idea. Ever.” we push forward with the idea, leaving assumptions and our customers behind.

But, there’s a problem with this way of thinking. When you leave the customer out of the equation you make it harder for yourself and your idea to flourish. What’s worse, in many cases you spend crazy amounts of effort and resources, as well as a lot of “blah…blah…blah”, never truly understanding whether your idea – be it a new product or an internal company change – is founded in reality.

Simply put: whether you’re designing a change for your company or a new product for someone else, the things you develop are for people, inside or outside your organization. These people are your customers. And, to create real change you must seek to understand your customers.

There are tons of blogs, books, and educational courses that focus on customer understanding. In fact, the commonly agreed upon definition of the “design process” is one that puts the customer (the human) at the center – always testing and iterating ideas based on customer input. Within every design blog, book, and course there exists a few fundamental, and devilishly simple to implement elements that will help you understand your customers better. These include observation, questioning, and seeking ambitions. That’s it. Simple, right? In the following post we’ve included three (really) simple steps to help you understand your customers better…really understand them. We guarantee the result is a better business through and through.


The first step is the simplest, though it’s also the one that takes real oomph to get over the inertial of your desk. In the famous words of Steve Blank (and his previous CEO at Ardent), you must “get out of the building.” To truly understand who your customers are, what motivates them, what gets in their way, and why they even do what they do (and make the choices they make), you simply have to watch them. You must observe them in their natural (working) states. After all, observation will influence the way you think about your customers and will help you understand them better. It will also inform your point of view and help to validate or invalidate your assumptions. But, like anything, there are right ways and not-so-right ways to observe the world around you.

Before you get started, here’s a quick test: you sit down to a cup of coffee or tea. How would you open your sugar packet? Okay, feel free to read on. We’ll get back to the sugar packet in a moment.

Observing your customer comes with just a couple of simple rules. Number one: Before you venture out to observe your customers, you’ll need to do a bit of planning. First off, define the subject of your observation before you go. What people and activities or behaviors do you plan to observe? Preselect the environment or location you want to observe. Where will your customers be at different times of the day? This, of course, is critical as people engage in different activities throughout the day. If you’re keen on observing people excising for instance, plan to go the park, gym, track, etc. in the morning and evening. Don’t forget to bring materials to record your findings as notes, pictures, sketches and videos. It would be shame to forget about key moments. Or worse, not be able to share them with your team. Number two: be a fly on the wall. Just as a pharmaceutical researcher wouldn’t tell her test subjects which pill is medicine and which is a placebo, you should do your best not to interfere with your customers daily jobs in a way that influences them to do something different than they normally would.

You might be asking yourself (and us) what observation really looks like in real life. When working with a team from a large plumbing supply manufacturer, Wavin, we took a few days to help the core team plan for a “customer safari”, after which they got out of the building and visited construction sites and plumbing suppliers over the course of just a few days. What the team found was totally game changing. Whereas the Wavin team started with the notion that to grow a specific market they would need to develop extra production capacity by way of a new factory, after observing their various customer segments in the wild, they learned something mind blowing – especially for a plumbing supply company: to grow their market, they needed to engage their customers in a totally new and unique way. In one simple 1-week “customer safari” they literally saved tens of millions of dollars. And 80% of what they did was to observe their customers in their natural work habitats.

And, the answer to the sugar packet question: you shake it before tearing it open. Observation would tell you that.

Ask (the right) questions

Along with observation, questioning is paramount to understanding what your customers care about and why. Questioning will lead to a richer picture of your customers’ lives and will inform your point of view. And as with observation there are a few simple rules to follow to get the insights you’re looking for.

Observing your customers in their natural habitats will tell you a lot about what they do, what they care about, and what decisions they make. However, observing your customers won’t necessarily tell you why they make the decisions they make. In fact, observing your customers without questioning them will eventually lead to compounding assumptions.

While you might think that you’re looking for the right answers, in fact, the most interesting insights you’ll make when speaking with your customers come from conversations, and not strictly answers to your questions. Therefore, the real key to questioning is that you ask the right questions. The right questions will always lead to interesting and telling conversations.

Again, you’re probably asking yourself: what are the “right” questions to ask? When you really want to understand the current situation, avoid yes/no questions (i.e. close-ended questions) as well as product mentions. You’ll have better conversations and will ultimately stand to get to the heart of what really matters.

Whenever possible, observe and question the same customers. Observe them first, and learn through their actions instead of their opinions. Once you’ve done a bit of observation ask your customers questions about the choices they make and why they make them, including why they bother at all to do what they are doing. Then, watch them again. In the previous sugar packet example, perhaps the information you’re really interested in is not how someone applies sweetener to her coffee or tea. But, why they do so at all. Armed with the why, you’ll probably come up with new options to serve them better than you would if you just tried to reinvent the sugar packet.

Here are a few rules of thumb when it comes to asking the right questions:

People will lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear.
Opinions are worthless. Opinions change based on context and offer no proof of what’s real.
People know what their problems are, but they don’t know how to solve those problems.
Some problems don’t actually matter. To a hammer everything looks like a nail. But not every problem requires a solution.
Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies are, not where the customer thinks they are.
Seeking ambitions

As humans, we often think of the changes we make and the solutions we invent as pain relievers. Our customers have problems for which we need to solve. And, it’s in the solution that we will create a huge new business or some other enviable change. However, the most radical, game changing ideas, innovations and solutions don’t just focus on relieving some pain. They focus on addressing the hidden ambitions the customer has. The key here is this: your customers may not know how to tell you about their ambitions. It’s up to you to find them.

To seek the hidden ambitions of your customers, the gains (as described on the Value Proposition Canvas), you must ask enough whys and really connect what your customers do with the reasons they do those things. For instance, perhaps you’ve got an idea for a sports app and you’re watching people run as part of their daily exercise routines. From watching people run, you could probably safely assume there is some aspect of getting or staying in shape. But why do the runners you’re observing feel they need to stay in shape? When you catch up with the runners, ask them why they run. But, don’t stop at one why. Just as a child would, ask to elucidate their answers through more whys. With enough of these kinds of conversations what you’ll find are the foundations of why your customers make the decisions they make. These are their ambitions. Asking runners enough whys and we guarantee that a good portion of the run-for-exercise segment is driven by a need for more pizza and ice cream.

Understand your customers

Understanding your customers’ ambitions will enable you to focus on aspects of your ideas that others probably won’t. Moreover, a rabid customer following ONLY comes when you create something that not only solves some pain, but also provides them with a way to address their ambitions – in their personal and professional lives. After all, prior to iPhones we already had smart phones, such as those from Blackberry, Nokia, and Palm (remember the Treo!) that did much of what iPhones did when they first arrived on the scene – and more in some cases. However, Apple wasn’t interested in solving only consumer pains. What Apple did brilliantly was find and address consumers’ ambition for freedom – freedom from extraneous, specialized devices, but also freedom to design our personal devices to fit our own particular needs and lifestyles. Once Apple found and addressed our ambitions…well…that story is history, as is Palm, Blackberry, and the Nokia we knew.

As you go out and design game-changing ideas, innovations, and solutions for your customers, never forget the fact that there are actual people, humans, at the other end of the things you’re designing. When you seek to understand your customers – truly understand them – you will build the foundations by which you can design things they need, wants, and aspire to have. To do this, it’s best to first observe, then questions, and finally uncover their hidden ambitions. In doing so you will not only win your customers’ trust, you may just win their business too.

Contrary to popular belief, Lorem Ipsum is not simply random text. It has roots in a piece of classical Latin literature from 45 BC, making it over 2000 years old. Richard McClintock, a Latin professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, looked up one of the more obscure Latin words, consectetur, from a Lorem Ipsum passage, and going through the cites of the word in classical literature, discovered the undoubtable source. Lorem Ipsum comes from sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of “de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum” (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero, written in 45 BC. This book is a treatise on the theory of ethics, very popular during the Renaissance. The first line of Lorem Ipsum, “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..”, comes from a line in section 1.10.32.

The standard chunk of Lorem Ipsum used since the 1500s is reproduced below for those interested. Sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 from “de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum” by Cicero are also reproduced in their exact original form, accompanied by English versions from the 1914 translation by H. Rackham.

Related Posts
0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x