10 Methods for Identifying Customer Needs

By Jeff Sauro

An innovative product doesn’t come from a law passed by the government. It also doesn’t come from venture capitalists looking for a higher return on an investment. Innovation comes from identifying customers’ needs and providing solutions that meet those needs.

Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Intuit understand this. Uber’s success, for example, has come not from building new, better taxis, but from seeing — and then solving — people’s transportation problems.

Although you might not be working on the next Airbnb, Uber, or even a product you think is exciting, like business software, or temperature controls, understanding and identifying customer needs may lead to a revolutionary innovation. After all, Nest revolutionized the rather mundane industry of thermostats and changed how everyone heats and cools houses.

Starting with existing data

You most likely have existing data at your fingertips. Review past surveys, customer interviews, and customer-support call logs. There’s no point in funding an extensive and expensive research campaign if the data you need is already collected.

Save the budget for data you don’t have and more advanced questions you need answered.

Interviewing stakeholders

Why not begin with the data you don’t have to pay for: the collective knowledge stakeholders have. Start with sales and support teams. They know the product and the customer. They often have a list of feature requests, bug reports, and enhancements — straight from the customer’s mouth.

Combine these to generate a preliminary list of requirements. Look for patterns, but don’t automatically dismiss one-offs — look to corroborate them with findings from other methods.

Mapping the customer process

If you know your customer’s process, map it out.

For example, before Uber, to get a ride you called a taxi company, waited to reach a dispatcher, waited for a car to be dispatched, hoped the driver would find you, and hoped you had enough cash when you reached your destination.

With Uber, you open your smartphone and summon the nearest car with one tap; you already know how far away the car is because you can see it in real time on a map. The driver also sees your location so he or she can come right to you. The figure shows a simple process map comparing these experiences.

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Mapping the customer journey

A customer journey map is a visualization of the process a customer goes through when engaging with a product or service. It takes process mapping to a new level by including multiple phases and touchpoints a person goes through — from prospect to loyal customer. It’s a document meant to unify fragmented efforts and identify points of friction and opportunities for improvement.

Finding and fixing the pain points in a customer’s journey isn’t just about damage control: It’s also about the innovation that comes from fixing the pain.

Conducting “follow me home” research

“Follow me home” research relies on observation by literally following a customer home or to work. You follow a customer to her workplace, spending the day watching her do her job. You observe process pain points and then look for opportunities for improvement.

For example, during a “follow me home” exercise, a team of researchers at Intuit noticed that retail customers were exporting their transactions from their point-of-sale cash registers into QuickBooks to manage their books. This step took time and sometimes led to failure and frustration. The innovative solution? Developers integrated QuickBooks into a cash register and eliminated the export step for customers and created a new version called QuickBooks Point of Sale (POS).

Interviewing customers

Go right to the source: Ask customers what problems they have and what features they want. Even when customers can’t articulate their needs clearly, you can often gain insights that lead to successful innovations.

Use the “Five Whys” technique to help you discover what needs people don’t even know they have, needs that no one has recognized before: Keep asking why until you get at the root cause of the problem and not a symptom. (It’s called “Five Whys” because you often have to go through five levels before you get to the point where you can make a change that addresses the problem.)

Conducting voice of customer surveys

Voice of Customer surveys collect data, from email or from a pop-up on a website, about the attitudes and expectations of existing or prospective customers. Use a mix of open- and closed-ended questions to see what produces the most useful data.

Although customers aren’t necessarily good at identifying their needs, this type of survey often yields data from which you can discern customer goals, challenges, problems, and attitudes, and then recommend opportunities for improvement.

Analyzing your competition

Consider using research firms that might present a more objective face to customers who engage with your organization and its competition. Consider using the SWOT rule: Identify your competitors’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. You can use a SWOT for a brand, product, or even an experience.

Define the competition both narrowly and broadly. Don’t just look at your competition in the same industry, but other industries as well.

Analyzing cause-and-effect relationships

No one will disagree that it’s usually good to think positively, but sometimes, negative thinking can solve problems more effectively. Through observations, surveys, and other data sources, you may find problems that are actually just symptoms of other root cause problems.

Task failures, errors, and long task times are usually the symptoms of multiple underlying problems. These can be problems in the interface or a disconnection with the user’s goals. Through the process of asking “Why?” multiple times and segmenting different causes, you can help identify and address root problems in the user experience.

Recording experiences through diary studies

Sometimes opportunities reveal themselves over time. One cost-effective longitudinal method is a diary study. Ask participants to record problems, frustrations, positive experiences, or thoughts at intervals throughout a day, week, or even a year. This can be low tech, with customers writing their experiences and thoughts down on paper and mailing it in, or high tech, in which you send text messages or emailed surveys to customers at particular intervals.

Because you’re asking your customer to do the data collection for you, be sure you have targeted questions and clear hypotheses you want to test with all the data that gets collected.

Expect a good percentage of customers to drop out or not be 100% diligent about filling out their diaries. Still, any information you can garner is better than no information at all. After all, you can’t fix what you don’t know about.