When we were starting out in my last startup, even before we had heard of customer development, we had a method for learning from users. It wasn’t great but it was better than what a lot of startups were doing.
– We took our buggy early version out to a cafe or college campus
– We then observed the people as they used our service
– When they finished, we interviewed them to gain additional knowledge into what they thought
– We did this over 100 times at about 20 – 30 minutes per individual tester.
When you observe people use your service, you’ll learn a lot. For us, most of the takeaways at that stage were design-related (we were at that point oblivious to the question “should we even build this service?”). But as for design learning for example, after seeing a high percentage of testers start to sign up and then stop and sit there, we realized that our sign up process was not intuitive. The words on the screen went unread. The design had to tell a story visually as well as in text.
Here’s what we missed:
Poor Pepsi. And us. We learned only afterward, that one-off user behavior (long interaction time, for example) looked nothing like what people would do when they got home (low repeat usage).
– We missed the ability to quickly iterate on designs based on what we learned. While design is not the complete answer in building a good product, we could have at least used the feedback we were getting rather than sitting on it for larger, infrequent updates.
– Instead of focusing on building the service, we should have mocked up more of it to more easily test. Then based on what we learned we could decide what to build.
– We lost good data when people didn’t collect it. You have to know what to look for, write it down and compare results or you’ll lose what you learn.
Still, we did some things right.
– And in retrospect, we beat a competitor that had 15 people and $500K in seed money (compared to our 3 people and minimal $4K cost to launch). As far as I saw, they did no customer development or even field tests. Instead, they went for PR, which didn’t result in any lasting results for them.
People often can’t tell you what they want, but you can learn about their problems, how they solve them today and then devise ways to solve those problems.