Ever fall deeply in love with a business idea on paper, only to find out that in reality it doesn’t resonate with customers? It’s a story I’ve seen play out a lot, experiencing many failures of my own before finally succeeding with two startups in the early days of the internet. While I enjoy those successes, it’s the lessons I’ve learned from failures that have stuck with me to this day as I launch and operate products.
The biggest lesson is this: Don’t fall in love with your solution. Fall in love with the customer problem you’re trying to solve. In fact, love isn’t a strong enough word; it’s more like obsession.
The trick is figuring out what the problem really is. It’s the biggest challenge startups face when launching a new product. Ask a customer about their problems and they will often tell you what they think you want to hear. It’s not done on purpose, but customers don’t know what they don’t know. Sometimes, they don’t even realize they have a problem.
Here are some thoughts on identifying the customer problem when developing and launching a new product.
Don’t ask, observe
There’s a big difference between what a customer says and what a customer does. The key is not to ask them but to observe them – in person and in their own setting. I recommend watching your potential customers where they’d use your product so you can organically see what they need. Obviously, get their permission to observe first!
My company, Intuit, conceived of our fastest-growing product simply by observing how customers were using a different product of ours – personal finance offering Mint. We noticed self-employed users were hacking it to meet their business needs. We asked these people what they needed in a proper business financial management solution but got 50 different answers. So we watched them. In a series of what we call “Follow Me Homes,” we visited customers in their homes or offices and observed how they worked.
Watching and observing made a big difference. We found, for example, that expense tracking was a major issue. Many were keeping receipts in shoeboxes and using a highlighter pen to categorize expenses as personal or business since they came out of the same bank account. Our first iteration of the product allowed users to swipe left for business expense and right for personal. The inspiration to build this feature – and the entire product – came from observing customer behavior and applying what we saw to build a solution that better suited their needs.
Walk in their shoes
Last year, Lyft made headlines when it required all of its corporate employees to get out from behind their desks and into cars to better understand what drivers and passengers experience. In a similar move, Facebook encouraged team members to participate in 2G Tuesdays, a day of the week where employees use a slower connection so they can experience the app the way users in developing countries do. Even TaskRabbit’s CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot has cleaned a user’s apartment to better understand the “taskers” on the platform. Nothing builds empathy and understanding like taking a walk in someone else’s shoes.
Recently, I encouraged my team to get side hustles in the “gig economy,” as many of our customers work these types of jobs. One of our team members spent a month driving for Uber and Lyft and quickly discovered there was no central place to find information related to finances or taxes for independent contractors. Understanding that this component was missing for drivers, we built FAQs for both ride sharing services that linked to tax and financial management resources within the driver dashboards. We wouldn’t have known this was a need had our team member not walked – or, in this case, driven – a mile in the customer’s shoes.
It can be painful to talk to angry customers, but picking up the phone when a customer calls for help is the best way to become intimate with their problem. And hearing the delight in a customer’s voice as you fix their problems in real-time makes it all worth it.
When we launched that new product in 2015, I purposely chose not to use the company’s dedicated customer care team. Instead, we required that all team members take turns handling calls. Through this, we made quick discoveries of the product’s shortcomings and were able to gain valuable insights, quickly mobilize, and build new features or fix bugs proactively. The same can be said about actively monitoring social media conversations about your product. For example, Gillette designed a new assisted shaving product after reading on social media about caretakers struggling to help another person shave.
To build products that resonate with customers you have to become completely obsessed with the customer problem. You need to observe, empathize, and experience their pain first hand. Without that focus, you could be building products that are great ideas but that no one needs.
Alex Chriss is Chief Product Officer, Small Business at Intuit.