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6 steps to effective customer research

In Agile, we always place the customer at the heart of everything we do. The golden rule? If a product addresses real customer needs, it's likely to be a hit in the market. No doubt, a strong marketing and sales team is important, but even they can't turn a mediocre product into a bestseller.
So, how do we ensure our product aligns with our customer's wants and needs? The key is understanding them. We need to dig deep into our customer's thoughts, understand their problems, and know their preferences. And that's where customer research steps in. It's an essential part of Agile product development.
In this blog post, I'll share a general approach to customer research. But remember, Agile is flexible. It's all about adapting to what's relevant and discarding what isn't. So, take what works best for your team, product, or company and adapt as needed. Let's dive in!

Step #1: The Power of Quantitative Research

Diving into a new product? Your first step should be to grasp the wider market landscape. This means getting the numbers right: understanding the demographics, pinpointing existing needs, and seeing how they're currently being met.
For instance, if you're planning to open a cafe, it’s worth diving into some local statistics. What's the average age of people in your target area? How about the general income bracket? And, of course, who are your coffee competitors nearby? But if you're venturing into a niche, like offering online Spanish courses, you'd be more interested in the global statistics: age distribution, gender ratios, income levels, and so on.
Now, quantitative research might sound daunting – often requiring significant resources. But here’s the silver lining: there are cost-effective ways to get started. From open demographic databases to city hall archives, and yes, even Wikipedia (a hidden treasure trove for some basic numbers). Analyzing the audience of competitors can also provide invaluable insights.
For those already in the game with an established product, don't dismiss quantitative research. It can be a goldmine, helping you identify overlooked customer segments and uncover fresh opportunities.

Step #2: Mastering the Art of Segmentation

With your market landscape clear, the next stage is segmentation. This is where you pinpoint your target audience, defining it either broadly or narrowly based on your strategic goals. It's a balancing act. Aim too specific, and while you might deliver immense value, you risk alienating potential customers outside that niche. Cast your net too wide, and you might dilute your offering, failing to resonate deeply with anyone.
To illustrate, let’s revisit my "Data-driven decision making" course where I discuss a bar for music enthusiasts. Imagine choosing a hyper-specific genre like 'Grunge-inspired Post-Punk'. By doing so, you cultivate a fiercely loyal but limited clientele. They'll love you for your niche but expect others to simply pass by. Conversely, labeling your bar for "all music lovers" and shuffling between hip-hop, classical, trance, and reggae might confuse and deter potential patrons. Without a clear identity, you risk meeting no one's true preference.
By the end of this step, you should be equipped with a clear segment description. For instance: "Young professionals between 25-34, living in urban areas, passionate about eco-friendly products, and with a monthly disposable income of $1000-2000." This clarity will be the foundation upon which all your next moves are built.

Step #3: Delving into Qualitative Research

Now that you've outlined your target segment, it's time for a closer, more intimate understanding of their needs and desires. The first task? Finding and connecting with a diverse sample from this segment. Look across your social media platforms, leverage your personal and professional networks, and don't shy away from striking up conversations on the street. Yet, tread cautiously to avoid what's known as 'selection bias'. Yes, you’ve got it right. This means you shouldn’t rely solely on, say, chatting with co-workers from the same department or neighbors from the same block, unless they specifically define your segment.
The essence here is conducting deep-dive interviews. Frame open-ended questions that spur genuine, unrehearsed responses. This isn't your stage to tout the brilliance of your idea or peddle it. Instead, it's your detective moment: Is the problem you’re addressing genuine for them? How critical is it in their lives? And, perhaps most tellingly, what current solutions or workarounds do they employ?
A guiding resource I frequently recommend is Rob Fitzpatrick's “The Mom Test”. It brilliantly elucidates the chasm between receiving enthusiastic nods from loved ones and genuinely validating your idea in the market. It's a reminder that, often, the most profound insights emerge from the least expected conversations.

Step #4: Crafting the Customer Persona

Dive into the world of customer research and you're bound to stumble upon the concept of personas. It's a vibrant, insightful tool that offers both clarity and a sprinkle of creativity. After gathering insights from numerous interviews, you’ll want to synthesize this rich tapestry of data into a coherent, single entity: the customer persona. This is essentially your "average Joe" or "everyday Jane" – a fictional representation that amalgamates the collective attributes of your target audience.
The beauty of using a fictitious persona, rather than pinning hopes on a real individual, is its innate flexibility. Real people come with quirks and anomalies. By creating a persona, you're ensuring a balanced view, devoid of personal biases or extreme outliers.
When drafting this persona, it's important to breathe life into them. Start by finding a visual representation – perhaps a quick search like “mid-30s tech enthusiast” can yield a fitting image. Name them, define their demographics (like age, marital status, and income), and delve into the intricate details. What's their day job? Their weekend passion? Do they prefer Apple or Android? Coffee or tea? The richer and more relatable your persona, the easier it becomes to design with their needs and desires in mind.
The ultimate aim? To make this persona so palpable, so vivid, that they're almost tangible. By knowing them deeply, you're better equipped to meet their expectations and craft solutions that truly resonate.

Step #5: Mapping the Customer Journey

Immerse yourself in the shoes of your customer, tracing every footstep of their journey. This exercise isn't just about your product. Instead, it paints a holistic picture, capturing their experiences with competitors' products or even their self-made solutions when no formal product exists. A step-by-step chronicle, from the initial spark of a problem to its eventual resolution, will reveal a treasure trove of insights.
At every juncture, delve deeper. What actions are they taking? Are they clicking on a specific feature or perhaps navigating to a competitor's page? Emotionally, what's their state? Elation, disillusionment, indifference? And what's buzzing in their mind? Maybe they're thinking, "Is there a quicker way?" or "Why is this so complicated?"
The touchpoints of discomfort, where the journey isn't smooth and where frustrations bubble up, are golden nuggets for you. These pain points are not merely challenges, but opportunities. By addressing these, not only can you refine the user experience but you can also distinguish yourself from competitors.
By crafting a journey that's both intuitive and empathetic to the user's needs, reducing the friction at every possible stage, you're laying down the yellow brick road to your product's success.

Step #6: Testing Hypothesis

With the foundation of customer research laid down, it's pivotal to verify our assumptions. We might have a strong belief about what customers want, but we can't be certain until real users interact with our product. To transform our hypothesis into knowledge, we deploy three primary tools: MVP, prototype, and A/B testing.
MVP (Minimum Viable Product): Think of an MVP as the most basic form of your product, designed specifically to test a hypothesis. Let’s say we hypothesize that cinema-goers might want to pre-order popcorn when buying movie tickets, we could introduce a straightforward checkbox in the ticket booking form. While the frontend displays this option, we could process these popcorn orders manually on the backend. If this option becomes a hit, we'd then develop it into a comprehensive feature.
Prototype: A prototype is akin to a product mock-up – it showcases how the product would look and feel, but it's not fully functional. For instance, we could design an enticing page where patrons can choose different popcorn flavors, sizes, or even drinks. They can interact with the prototype, but they can't place an order. This helps us understand if the design and offerings resonate with the users.
A/B Testing: This method is about direct comparison. If we've formed a hypothesis, say, about the color of a button impacting user engagement, A/B testing will validate or refute it. Maybe we think a blue button might get more clicks than a red one. To test this hypothesis, half the users would see a blue button, and the other half a red one. The response would decide the superior color choice. But here's a pro-tip: always test a single hypothesis at a time. If you want to also test the button's text, it warrants a separate test. Combining them – like changing both the text and color simultaneously – would necessitate a more complex A/B/C/D test. For instance, a "Buy Now" button in blue and red versus an "Add to Cart" button in the same colors, each shown to 25% of the audience. This ensures clarity in results and interpretation.
Delving into the world of product development without customer testing is akin to sailing without a compass. Its paramount importance lies in the insights it provides, directly influencing a product's trajectory towards success. However, it's essential to remember that customer research isn't a one-time event but a continuous journey. As your product evolves, so will your customers, their preferences, needs, and challenges. Embracing regular research ensures you remain in sync with them, always delivering value and staying relevant.
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