I am a big fan of customer visits – ones where a software product manager visits customers on-site and observes them using your or competitor’s product. Now why do this? What are the benefits of doing this over talking to the same customer/prospect over the phone, while at a conference/trade show or doing a survey etc. Here are the 5 reasons why I find a customer visit trumps other market requirements gathering techniques:
1) Customers misstate their pain points: Yes, they do. But not because they want to mislead you. But because what customers tell you is often very different from what they do. For example, let us say you are on the phone and ask them to walk you through the different steps they do to complete a particular task. They will tell you what they can remember. When they articulate these steps they usually tend to remember the ideal way they do things or the way they are supposed to do things. But this is often not the way they end up doing things. There are always quirks, there are often painful detours which you will never get to know. These painful detours could be a gold mine for usability issues to solve such that the customer’s life becomes a lot easier when using your product.
2) They don’t want to look stupid: Usually customer phone calls have multiple representatives from the customer side and often folks with varying responsibilities and varying levels of expertise of your product. It is difficult for someone who is not as good as using your product admit that it is very difficult to do something. Here is a typical scenario:
Bill (a new user who is struggling with or learning your product): “You know I wish your product was easier to use when it comes to doing <insert one of your product features here>. I use this every day and every time I use it, I either lose data or the performance is very slow.”
John (Mr. Power User who is also on the call): “Oh Bill, that can be easily done. It is because you don’t know about feature X. I will show you how to do it after this call.”
Do you think Bill is going to tell you any more of his pain points? He shuts up from there on and all you get to hear would be from the Mr. Power User, mostly things that are useful for the power users. Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Power User could be the most passionate visionary you want to tap into or could be the most opinionated, smooth talking person who pretends he knows it all. You have to be understand which of these two you are dealing with. The above scenario is difficult to do over the phone, but easier to do when you are meeting them in person (because you can choose to meet in private with Bill or ask him to show you how he uses your product).
3) Surveys: Good data gathering tool when you are ready to do quantitative evaluations, but only to augment the qualitative data gathering you have done via customer visits. Again when responding to survey questions, customers will answer on how they think they are doing something vs. how they really do it. Surveys typically do not capture the real pain points customers experience. The customer also tend to propose solutions when responding to survey questions as opposed to explaining the real problem that needs to be solved. Survey responses by their very nature are monologues and are not a conversation.
4) Customers do not know what they do not know: Humans quickly get used to doing things in one way that it becomes second nature. Once you get used to something or you are too close to the problem – you lose the objectivity. By observing customers in their native habitat, you are able to observe all the inefficient things that they do by second nature. By observing these things and by solving them, you would provide solutions to problems that the customer did not even know he had. You get respected for your ability to look out for the customer.
5) You get to see the customer’s “native” habitat: Where does the customer spend his time when he is working? A nice cushy air conditioned office? Or a dump that is next to the manufacturing floor where it is noisy and dusty as hell? How computer savvy are they? On one of my customer visits, I visited a customer for whom Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V were major revelations. And he has been using the computer for a long time. It is very easy for us when sitting in our offices to assume that our customers are computer savvy. What are your typical customers like? Ones that wear suits to work? Or ones that are in shorts and flip-flops? How often do they get interrupted when trying to use your product? All of this will help you build up the customer persona you are designing for and also understand where your product fits in the customer’s working life. None of this is possible to do via customer phone calls, surveys or even while meeting customers in your offices or trade shows.