Take a Closer Look at that Duct Tape- Customer Discovery Hacks

Duct TapeDuct tape is enjoying a well-deserved resurgence, much of it from rising interest in design thinking and rapid prototyping. Yet I’ve noticed many of the folks I work with as a manager and a mentor don’t go as far as they could in looking at the (usually metaphorical) duct tape solutions their prospective users create.

A B2C Example

I’m on the advisory board of Making Friends, which is working on an iPad/tablet app for children with autism (actually all conditions in the autism spectrum disorder, ASD). One of their earliest inspirations was the fact that parents of children with ASD learn to practice a technique where the parent draws out a story for social interactions, like going to the dentist. The story then serves as a primer for future social interactions that the parent and child can review together. So it’s a reasonable idea to try using software to make that easier and better. And this is where I see lots of folks doing customer discovery stop when they’d likely benefit from going further- ‘A ha! Here’s a clumsy, difficult process that could be better implemented in an app. I’ll get to it’

But making great products is hard and the single best predictor of success (I’ve found) is the degree of empathy the customer discovery team has for the user. So it’s important to take a close look at how the user has used that (metaphorical) duct tape and what it tells you about what they want to do and how they do it. The little facets matter a lot- great products are the accumulation of lots of well-executed details. The team at Making Friends does just that, looking at as many actual hand-created stories as they can get their hands on.

 A B2B Example

I’m the founder and CTO of an enterprise software company, Leonid Systems. We make software for cloud communications operators. They have lots of different assets in their network inventory- all the physical and virtual stuff that makes up their network. We have a product, Loki BPM, that helps manage this.

I was talking a few weeks ago with one of our account executives about a facet of Loki BPM’s inventory management related to one of his accounts. We talked about the problem scenario and he mentioned the customer was still managing this one part of their inventory in a spreadsheet- a good proof point that there was a specific, actionable need. We then agreed that said spreadsheet would be a good source of implementation ideas for our new product feature. He got the spreadsheet, worked with the customer to understand it, and, indeed, it turned out to be a great source of details and specifics on the relevant problem scenarios and user stories.

And so. . .

The focus of Lean Startup is speaking your assumptions and figuring out the quickest, cheapest way to validate or invalidate them. That said, asking the right questions about the user and creating high quality assumptions is equally important. For that, there’s no substitute for learning about details.

Asking users about their metaphorical duct tape may seem strange- obsessive or stalker-ish. Here are a tips to help you on your way:

1. Don’t Be Weird. It’s not Weird
The truth is on your side- you’re just trying to get the information you need to build a good product. Internalize that and try not to project weirdness.

2. Explain
Few people have professional training where they’d understand why you want to see these details (hence all the blogs, book, and general hubbub around design thinking). Explain to them in the simplest possible terms why you want to see the items in question.

3. Make it Easy
Make it easy for the person. This might mean flipping through a few things with them and telling them what you want. It may also mean seeing everything you need while you’re on site or on a screen share since they don’t like the idea of having it leave the building or house. Put yourself in their shoes, think about what’ easy and what’s hard.