Why is Listening to the Voice of Your Customer Harder than You Think?

    By: Larry Marturano on Apr 28, 2011

    It seems like nothing stirs a good debate in product development and innovation circles better than what role customers should play in figuring out what to ship.

    Although it’s a lot of fun to watch, much of the discussion generates more heat than light. In today’s hyper-polarized culture, opinions tend to cluster around the extremes. Fast Company Design’s article, “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs,” is a recent case in point. The author pokes at the idea of customer centered design, claiming that involving customers in the innovation process leads to incremental improvement at best, and a complete waste of money and time at worst. Predictably, this missive provoked a spate of online responses in the design blogosphere, most defending the virtues of being user-centric and listening to customers.

    It’s always puzzled me why these debates are so heated. After all, it seems self-evident that we should be designing products that meet customers’ needs. Why would anyone spend money otherwise? For most of us in product development and management, the question is not whether to pay attention to customers’ needs, but how.

    So why is listening to customers so contentious?

    To me, the problem boils down to a huge misconception that our customers can tell us what they want if we just ask them. In fact, the very term “voice of the customer” evokes exactly that image: helpful customers, telling us in their own voices what they want.

    Sounds good. I know what I like, just make it for me already. Unfortunately, we’re not really very smart when it comes to thinking about what we want. Folks who study this stuff for a living, cognitive and psychological researchers, have shown over and over that we’re all notoriously bad at recognizing our own needs and talking about them. Turns out we’re also poor at recognizing our own motivations, the reasons for decisions we make, and we’re even poorer at predicting our future reactions, feelings and behaviors. And so it turns out that making exactly what our customers ask for is a big mistake.

    And still the tool of choice for market research remains the focus group, which basically boils down to… well, asking people what they want. In some cases, when coupled with other methods, they’re useful. But the weaknesses of focus groups are pretty well-documented, and include the difference between what people say at first and what they actually do long term, “peer” pressures within groups, and even outright lying.

    But we keep using them. Hey, they’re cheap to conduct, easy to organize, and they’re supported by a cottage industry of consultants, recruiters, facilities and even participants. As a result, too many of us have become over-reliant on focus groups, and we get a dangerous and false sense of security in the process. As Jump Associates’ Dev Patnaik provocatively says, “Focus groups are the crack cocaine of market research. You get hooked on them, and you're afraid to make a move without them.”

    And so, we product developers keep right on asking people what they want and making it, often to disastrous results.

    There are tons of examples, famous and infamous. New Coke was a bust even after extensive taste tests, surveys and focus groups. The Aeron chair—the only desk chair in the New York Museum of Modern Art—was panned in early customer testing for being “ugly.” The Edsel, on the other hand, tested well. No bigger example exists than Walmart’s recent experience with “Project Impact.” Based on surveys telling them that people wanted less cluttered stores, Walmart revamped their store strategy and customer experience. Starting in 2008, stores removed center aisle pallets, reduced end-cap size and displays at the ends of aisles, and shortened shelves. In all, Walmart reduced store inventory by 15%. And the result? A cumulative two-year $1.85B drop in revenue, followed by a reversal of the strategy and a purging of executives.

    Faced with the reality of these glaring failures of “customer intimacy,” it’s no wonder that the “You Should Never Listen to Your Customers” movement is gaining converts.

    But it’s not that listening to customers is the wrong thing to do. As the guru of Cupertino says, “you just have to think different.”

    In response to problems with traditional market research, more companies are now adopting ethnographic techniques to get a better understanding of customer needs. Part of industry’s move toward “design thinking,” ethnography immerses product managers, developers and designers in the everyday context of users’ lives. Like anthropologists, product staff leave their comfy cubicle confines and live with customers in their own “natural habitats,” observing and asking questions to uncover the attitudes, values and behaviors around the context of their product or service. Think Margaret Mead in New York instead of New Guinea. Contextual Inquiry is probably the most widely used ethnographic design technique, although there are others in use.

    Bottom line, ethnographic methods can help address a lot of the shortcomings of focus groups and surveys. Especially for those of us in the early stages of product development… the “fuzzy front end.”

    Uncover actual behavior—including unconscious and automated ones

    The main advantage that ethnographic techniques have is discovering what people really DO in the environments that these behaviors naturally happen—the real world—instead of in what they do in glass-walled conference rooms. This might seem obvious, but there are more subtle effects in play as well. For example, experts paradoxically have the hardest time saying how and why they do things, because the behaviors have become automatic and the motivations are unconscious and under the surface. When we go observe these experts where they actually live, work or play, we can of course see their actual behaviors, but we can also ask questions, probing and helping them uncover their hidden motivations by increasing their awareness of actions that have become buried in their unconscious over time. The resulting insights and observations are just not available to people in a lab or conference room, divorced from the actual environment of use.

    Understand the complexities of the customers’ environment

    In addition, by being with our customers in the same places they’ll use our products, we can discover important aspects of their environments that would never come up under questioning, since they are not aware of our design capabilities or constraints. This is especially true in really complex environments, where a product or service is used by people having multiple roles and functions, and where those “soft” aspects of the environment, like politics or social pressures, come to bear. But it is also true for purely technical products. MIT’s Eric Von Hippel gives the example of a manufacturer of PC board pick-and-place machines, which used optical recognition to position and solder electrical components. The developers were frustrated that the machines kept failing in the field. It turned out that some of the PC boards being used were yellow in color rather than the green the designers had assumed. This degraded the vision system’s performance and so the machines started putting components all over the boards. The customer had supplied green samples for test, but never thought to mention possible color variations. They were simply unaware of what could go wrong based on the designers’ technical constraints—the guts of how the machine “saw” the parts.

    Recognize that customers are not designers

    Ethnographic interviewing also recognizes that there is an inherent information imbalance between you and your customers: your customers know more than you do about their own lives and surroundings, but don’t know much about your product plans, design competencies, or technical capabilities and constraints. And usually, they are not designers. You, on the other hand, have the opposite information—you know your plans, competencies and constraints, but know comparatively little about your customers. Von Hippel says in most cases this information is “sticky,” that is, it’s hard to transfer. But in most cases, it is way easier for your engineers and designers to visit your customers than it is for you to train your customers how to be designers. In the customer’s environment, it’s easy for your designers to see through the lens of your competencies and identify insightful matches between your customers’ unspoken needs and your capacity to meet them.

    Find compelling value propositions for new technologies

    A final advantage is that, once in the field, your designers can identify powerful insights about the potential uses of new technology—those “ah ha!” moments when invention happens. Too often companies, especially engineering-dominated ones, forge ahead with “field of dream” solutions that showcase new or breakthrough technologies, with a poor understanding of the real value proposition for customers. The video telephone is probably the best example here, but the technological landscape is littered with products that were little more than technologies looking for a use. Even in the absence of specific product plans, companies have profited by conducting exploratory field research for potential uses of “breakthrough” technology.

    Amenable to product development processes

    Driven by the late-1990’s hype surrounding “cool hunting” and “trend spotting,” product professionals initially thought ethnographic techniques sounded like “magic” or trendy design blather. But as more firms started to collect field data, a better understanding emerged for how to mesh these qualitative techniques into existing development processes. For example, Contextual Design includes ways to model the data from field interviews and translate the resulting insights into requirements. This way, the customer understanding is shifted from stories trapped inside the field researchers’ heads to an externalized, standardized and extendable repository of customer intelligence that can be reused throughout the development process. Most recently, ethnographic techniques and user experience have been integrated with agile development processes as well.

    Experienced product development readers here will realize that there is no magic bullet for product development success—and I’m not saying that Contextual Inquiry or any other ethnographic technique can guarantee success. But the time has definitely come for forward thinking companies to add more field-oriented techniques to their customer understanding toolsets, especially in adopting design thinking ideas in their new product development processes.

    Don’t just ask your customers what they want—take the time to understand what they really do and why.

    How about you? Reply back and let me know about your successes and challenges with listening to the customers’ voice!

    - by Larry Marturano, Director, Chicago Office at InContext Design.
    follow us on Twitter @incontextdesign

    Released: April 28, 2011, 10:10 am
    Keywords: PDMA Blog | Customer Voice | User Centered Design

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