The Feedback Machine: How do you discover what people really want?


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This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

How do you discover what people really want?

People are not effective at self-reporting, or letting you know what they will do with your product when you’re not there to help them. Often, customers will tell you that they are going to take action or that they “like” something. And then it doesn’t get done. It’s easier to appease and give positive feedback (“it’s great!”) than to tell you it’s awful or give you specific, constructive advice.

How do you discover what people – and in this case, your customers – really want? To understand what customers want, you need to put a feedback machine in motion and continue to test what you learn over time. As the flywheel for feedback begins to turn, you’ll get more data, which will allow you to test and change faster.

Here’s what one feedback machine looks like: Ask, Observe, and Track.

What are the different ways you can ask customers what they want?

You can talk to customers, give them surveys, and hold focus groups. And each of these methods have caveats. Asking customers what they want is the core way you can find out what they really want – because some of them will tell you. Because customers won’t always tell you directly what they want, it’s helpful to ask them in a few different ways and then correlate the results to see if you hear the same things in different places. And make sure you keep the number of questions low so that customers balk at your survey. You also need to ask them the right questions. Asking a leading question like “given a perfect situation that matches my product perfectly, would you use my product” doesn’t help you or your customers. Zero in on the “I need” and “I want” statements to get closer to the true customer needs.

Surveys are another good way to get feedback. You can ask for preference using a multiple-choice or free-text survey. You can ask people what they think in a group setting using a focus group – this often spurs new ideas and can also induce “groupthink” – and learn more about many people at once. You can also ask people “what others would like” to try to remove individual self-reporting bias.

Asking gets you one result and Observing gives you a rich picture

Asking customers what they want isn’t enough. Observing what customers do is another key way to learn what they really want. Customers may show you non-verbal cues in a focus group that give you new ideas. And you can also learn a lot from in-person or remote usability studies. The key is to observe what people do without being prompted or providing instructions.

Focus groups provide you with a natural place to observe non-verbal reactions, though you may get some false signals when the customer is not in their natural environment. That’s why in-person and remote usability studies are really valuable.

Tracking behavior over time is the gold standard

Even if customers tell you what they think they want at the moment, the best way of knowing what they want and value in your product is to track their behavior over time.

The best products create or augment habits – things that are done repetitively. They also create or react to triggers – natural behavior cues from their environment and emotions – to spur the customer to do something. And if they are easy enough to do the customer can learn how to do them with little effort until it becomes almost subconscious (thanks @bjfogg for your Behavior Model to describe these aspects of behavior.)

So tracking habits should be one part of your feedback machine to find out what people really want. You should also be tracking any changes in the Word of Mouth that surrounds your product. If your customers aren’t talking about you or your product, that’s probably a sign that you haven’t zeroed in on things that people want – and have not yet exceeded the threshold of what they expect. In an ideal world, everyone would be talking about your product in the right channel at the right time. Some products aren’t ideal for public sharing – but many are after you demo your product for the target customer and they “get it”.

In the real world, you need to find the people who like (or love) your product and then understand how to find more people like them. If you’d like to learn more about this, start by reading Kevin Kelly’s classic 1000 True Fans. You also need to learn how to extrapolate from the things those early adopters love to the things that later adopters will love, too.

The Feedback Machine of Ask, Observe, and Track will get you closer to the goal of learning what your customers want. But it won’t speak for itself – you’ll need to use the information you learn to have conversations with your customers and find out what they truly value.

This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

Balance what’s cool with what people will actually use (and buy)

It’s easy to think when you’re starting a new product (or even coming up with a new feature for an existing feature) that not only have you found the newest, coolest way to do things but also have unlocked the secret to users and usage – or making sure that people will actually use the thing.

Should I make sure that they learn how to do this new thing?” you might ask yourself, while also asking “but what do they really need – and are willing to pay for?

Avoiding the shiny object conundrum

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If it’s sparkly, it must be good (no, great). Social log-in, private messages, mobile social local, posting to Facebook while driving in your car (while on a handsfree device of course) could all be useful features in the service of solving the user’s problem. But if the user doesn’t have that problem, you might have a problem.

So how would you know if this is a “bright idea” or a genuinely good one that might lead to sustained usage over time?

Ignore Your Idea the First Time You Have It

Yep, the first time your idea pops up, just ignore it. (Or jot it down on a post-it note if it seems particularly important and you’re worried about losing it to the idea gremlins of the world.) If an idea manifests itself more than once (and especially if you hear your existing customers saying it), it’s probably more than a one-time concern for them as well.

If it isn’t the first time you’ve had the idea, try to generalize it so that it appeals to a broad group (read: broader than you) and make it specific enough in the problem it solves that you can test it out on some people who don’t have any stake in proving that your idea is valuable.

Test Your Idea with a Simple Statement

Remember, when you’re asking people if they would use your idea to solve their problem, you need to ask them in a way that solves a specific problem that they have (not whether they think your idea is cool.)

You might use a template like this: if you’re a ______________ who does ______________ and repeats it _____ times a _______, would your life be easier if you could _______________ by doing ___________ and learning _______________.

This works equally well if your idea is an online or offline idea. Now go and ask 30 people you know (and make a survey to ask 30 people you don’t know.) If you start seeing patterns before these people see prototypes, wireframes, or shiny web apps, you’ve probably thinking about something that can create, communicate, and deliver unique value. And that’s something that will keep people coming back (even when things don’t look so shiny.)


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