By Sheba Najmi (Participant, Founder Labs)
Customer research really is an art.

I’ve seen fewer than a handful of excellent user experience researchers who have an innate knack for it. Unfortunately, more often than not, qualitative research is muddied by:

  • users wishing to please the researcher
  • unmindful leading questions by researchers, and
  • artificial settings and tasks that obfuscate true usage patterns.

If, for example, you change the setting or the experience level of the researcher, you’d likely receive a report of a strikingly different set of key findings.

At Founder Labs, I’ve learned that the hallmark of a lean startup is customer development. Figuring out whether or not your idea has any real appeal for potential customers is fraught with many of the same gotchas as asking users to accomplish contrived tasks in a lab setting. In the product development world, even if someone has an innate talent for intuiting users’ needs between their verbal lines, it takes months of experience to become a good user experience researcher.

How, then, does a small team of budding entrepreneurs with cross-functional backgrounds in engineering, business, and design conduct any meaningful customer discovery under a rapid-fire deadline?

There is no such thing as quick & easy customer discovery.

Early on, when in the Customer Discovery phase of the customer development cycle, as we currently are at Founder Labs, the quick and dirty web survey seems to be a natural bet. The obvious benefits to this are that you can blast it out to hundreds of Facebook and Twitter followers and knock out 44 of your goal of 50 customer discovery participants in one relatively effortless go. Unfortunately, what you get out of it is commensurate to the amount of effort you put in.

As I’ve learned, the written word doesn’t tap into that critical first instinctual response you yearn to witness as a researcher. In person, or even on the phone, people don’t have the luxury of time to edit themselves out of their natural first reflex. While it’s tempting to sit back and knock out some emails as the results trickle into your inbox, more thorough live user research is often a lot more enlightening. And if it doesn’t leave you feeling exhausted at the end of the day craving a soak in the tub, you’re likely not trying hard enough.

Quantity is not the goal.

It’s also important that customer discovery not be about the numbers. While we’re told to talk to ~50 potential customers, that number is just a guideline to provide some information about what is likely a reasonable number of users to talk to. But the goal is not the number of people you talk to. The goal is really about getting to a place where you’ve iterated on your idea sufficiently (or completely pivoted, as the case may be) till you feel reasonably comfortable that the direction you’re headed in solves a real pain point.

Customer research sans money.

My own team has been looking at a particularly challenging customer audience: the elderly. What draws us to this group is our desire to create value in the world. We’d like to tackle a Big, Hairy, Audacious problem. Well, as we’re discovering, there’s a reason why it’s a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal to improve communication, healthcare, and social engagement for the elderly: The elderly, by default, are not early adopters of new technology. If we were to accost an 80-year-old lady and ask her to interact with an iPad, there would likely be no chance of success.

The following counsel, however, applies to all manner of user research, not just my team’s technologically-averse audience: Given that none of our teams at Founder Labs has money to offer in return for users’ time and feedback, that underscores the need to establish trust and build up a relationship quickly before most users will feel comfortable enough to try an unfamiliar technology that they’re concerned will make them look or feel stupid.

…Which brings me to some how-tos I’ve learned that apply not only to my team’s particularly challenging user market, but are good practices that can help with most customer research. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, “11 tips for getting the most out of your customer research.”

Please take 2 minutes to answer my team’s survey questions here — Thank you!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

This post was originally posted at Founder Labs’ blog.

About the guest blogger: Sheba Najmi is a user experience designer who comes with a dose of product management. She learned how humans and computers “think” by earning BS and MS degrees in Symbolic Systems (Cognitive Science, Human-Computer Interaction) at Stanford University. She has since learned a lot more during 6½ years designing for Yahoo! Mail’s 262 million users and especially as Design Lead for Yahoo! Mail Classic for 4 of those years. Follow her on Twitter at @snajmi.