This column was originally published on Entrepreneur.com on September 13, 2019
Why is it important to understand customer needs? Having a solid grasp can make or break your mission, and failing to do so can create problems with innovation. Australian-based shoe e-retailer Shoes of Prey had to learn this lesson the hard way. Once a darling of the investment community, Shoes of Prey collapsed earlier this year when it discovered a large gap in customers’ intent and their actual behaviors.
After conducting market research, company leaders concluded that mass-market customers would respond well to shoe customization, an offering that many heralded as innovative. Unfortunately, the mass market didn’t bite. As CEO Michael Fox wrote in a Medium post, “While our mass-market customers told us they wanted to customize … what they were consciously telling us and what they subconsciously wanted … were effectively polar opposites.”
It’s not that consumers are liars. Sometimes, they’re simply flawed forecasters. You might think entrepreneurs should be able to easily predict customer requirements, but research tells another story, showing that more than 160 cognitive biases can interfere with your ability to put yourself in customers’ shoes.
Biases serve as shortcuts in thinking and can be a pitfall for entrepreneurs trying to empathize with customers. For instance, recency bias dictates that you’re inclined to use your most recent experience as the baseline for what will happen in the future. So you might assign additional weight to more recent survey results despite conflicting results from last quarter. Similarly, confirmation bias will cause you to filter out feedback that doesn’t align with your existing beliefs and embrace feedback that matches your mental model of user desires. Both can distort your vision of customers’ needs.
Biases can also affect what your users tell you. For instance, framing bias influences how people respond based on how options are presented (e.g. Which product sounds better: one that’s 90 percent effective or one that has a 10 percent failure rate?). Anchoring dictates that consumers will stay focused on the initial information they receive. For surveyed users, this might mean they lock in on a choice presented early in a survey. This isn’t because they actually prefer that choice, but because they saw it first.
Undoubtedly, thinking like users is one of the best approaches to entrepreneurship. However, it’s often difficult to determine how to begin, particularly when you’re also dealing with innovation problems. Here are three steps to better understand customer needs.
1. Follow up on outlier answers.
Just because you haven’t heard a specific answer doesn’t mean it’s invalid customer input. Expand your understanding of users not just through interviews, but by observing their behaviors, too. In addition, strive to understand the context in which your product is most and least effective.
Once, I helped design an interactive tablet encyclopedia for middle school-aged children. My team and I created a revolutionary controller design that was placed near the bottom-right edge of the interface and was meant to be viewed in landscape orientation. We wanted to test our prototype to see how children utilized our innovative controller, so we invited two families that were part of the company to participate in an alpha release. While our team was collecting feedback from the middle schoolers, I noticed a 5-year-old sibling was crying while tapping a spare tablet over and over. I quickly realized that while his older brother could hold the tablet with both hands, he was leaving one hand on the tablet while he used it. This created conflicting interactions, and therefore, nothing would click. While he wasn’t exactly our target age group, he forced us to rethink our “revolutionary” controller and made us consider that this product could also serve a younger demographic.
This is simply one example of how flexibility during user testing can show you something unexpected. In fact, these kinds of results can even shift the path you’re on. To start accurately understanding customer needs, combat your confirmation bias. If you feel too sure about what users want early in a process, doubt that certainty and test it. Don’t screen out unexpected answers; follow up on them. Never assume that technology can screen out bias on your behalf, either: A few years ago, Google discovered that its sentiment analyzer was tagging sentences about religious and ethnic minorities with negative sentiment.
2. Get “real” with objective tools.
It’s too easy to become anchored in your assumptions when you’re close to the product you’re designing, so it’s critical to create some distance in the validation process. This requires a vigorous understanding of both what you’re trying to understand and how you’ll carry out processes. These elements really matter.
Explicitly document your assumptions early on. This allows you to challenge them as you continue to research and work through innovation issues. That process can also help cultivate the habits of awareness that will allow you to ask questions with some objectivity, as well as talk less and listen more.
Another great way to gain some psychological distance is through objective methods such as moderated user testing. This is an approach in which a person moderates the testing experience in many possible ways, such as answering participants’ questions and generally guiding the testing. You must take this step, because investing in user experience can generate massive financial returns. Research from The UX School discovered that for every dollar invested in UX design, companies reap at least $100 in returns. Plus, when you take the time to understand how users actually use your product, you’ll be able to catch instances of users failing to understand an interface or feature.
3. Experiment with framing and note the results.
Frame research questions in multiple ways to see how it might affect user feedback. In a 2008 post-presidential election poll, Pew Research Center found that questionnaire design impacted answers immensely. Pew asked all respondents: “What one issue mattered most to you in deciding how you voted for president?” However, some received a set of multiple-choice answers to choose from, while others had to type their answers into empty text fields. When the economy was listed as a multiple-choice option, 58 percent of respondents selected it as a key determinant, whereas only 35 percent of respondents who received the open-ended question volunteered the economy as an answer.
Any researcher can achieve similar insight through similar methods of framing. For example, try restating your question in a negative way, changing labels from percentages to actual values (e.g. “25 percent of people” versus “four people”) or reordering questions randomly across a large sample of users to wash out anchoring effects.
Knowing what users want isn’t easy. Sometimes, even they don’t have a concrete answer. If you want your business to succeed, however, understanding a user’s mindset is a critical piece in the innovation puzzle. It’s not enough to conduct very basic user surveys. Instead, you need to understand your biases, recognize those of your customers and patiently seek the truth.
This column was originally published on Entrepreneur on September 13, 2019