Beyond Customer Interviews: From Post-Its to Product

Now that you’ve nailed conducting killer customer interviews and are getting good customer stories; what’s next? How do we take a collection of conversation notes and turn them into concepts for awesome products?

Let’s take a look at one way through the product design process.

One of our go-tos for compiling and analyzing feedback is the affinity map. To affinity map your feedback, take all of the quotes and observations from your interview, write them on Post-its, and stick them to the wall. Once they’re all up, move the stickies around to group “similar” things together.

The groups that emerge from this exercise will lead to a number of insights and questions. For example, “It looks like most customers shopping in groups took multiple sizes into the dressing rooms at once. Lone shoppers didn’t; I wonder if social shoppers optimize trips to the dressing room while less frequent shoppers don’t. If so, I wonder why?”

Repeat this several times, remapping the sticky notes according to different similarities. Though it may seem redundant, forcing the team to do this one more time than feels reasonable can lead to great insights. Also, don’t shy away from seemingly strange groupings. Strange can be important.

Some of the insights you gather will help define customer segments – classes of customers that behave in similar ways, have similar needs, and share demographics. Some will help identify problems or needs of the customers.

So what do you do with a bunch of customer segments and insights about their needs? A great tool we often use is the problem statement:

“CUSTOMER SEGMENT needs a better way to VALUE PROP because PROBLEM/NEED”

It’s important to come up with several of these statements before selecting one. While it’s easier to rush through the process and settle on the first thing you come up with, this proves to be far less fruitful in the long run.

Even more importantly, make sure you don’t embed your ideas for the solution into the problem statement. This often results in a problem statement with only one possible solution. For example, “College students need a better way to order pizza because they can’t order pizza from their mobile devices.” A better alternative is, “College students need a better way to order pizza because they often want one while out dancing, where it’s too loud for phone calls.”

To identify a good problem statement, start with a quick brainstorm of solution ideas and questions. A good problem statement makes it really easy to come up with ideas. Don’t worry about the quality, just make sure you can come up with many ideas and questions.

Problem statements that are too narrow will only allow for a few ideas that fit. Those that are too broad lack structure and lead to blank page syndrome.

With a problem statement selected and a long list of (mostly silly, strange, or outright bad) concepts and questions, it’s time to pick a few favorites. You can do this by dot voting on the brainstorm stickies, giving everyone on the team three votes and stack ranking the results based on votes.

Great work. Now that you have some concepts and questions in hand it’s time to start Customer Validation.

More on that later.

How To Destroy a Month of Work in a Minute

A month of coding down the drain.

“What are the top features you’d look for in a Pinterest analytics product?” we asked the client, prepared to hear an agenda for our demo.

We expected to pull back the curtain on a solution for exactly those problems, and awe them with our intuition and customer insight.

A minute later we realized we’d failed.

Our client’s answer to our question was not what we’d anticipated. We didn’t support any of the use cases they enumerated. Every single feature they mentioned focused on tracking activity across all Pinterest users for their ecommerce site. Our entire product focused on engagement around their Pinterest account. We’d completely missed the mark.

Rewind a month.

We’d just finished meeting with a number of friends at social media agencies, where many had expressed a need for analytics for Pinterest. Pinterest was new; it didn’t yet support any tracking or work with any of the big analytics packages. Also, the existing products were overly complicated for the social platforms they did support. They wanted something simple, something they could use to show their clients they were doing a good job.

Perfect. We could easily solve this for them. We started work on an MVP, confident that the Pinterest API could easily cover this use case.

Except it wasn’t easy.

As we moved higher within the organizations, engaging with financial buyers, things became more complicated. At the time, social media was seen as a bit of a black art. A lot of social folks operated on instinct rather than data. Buyers didn’t want to pay for something that risked showing their efforts in anything but the best possible light.

No problem. We’d switch customers, focusing on their clients instead. These clients, big ecommerce brands with a strong social presence, definitely wanted to know social engagement on their accounts, right?

We emailed a few friends in social media at some big brands and asked them if analytics for Pinterest were important to them. They said yes. Slam dunk. We spent the rest of the month frantically finishing the MVP to demo.

Which brings us back to the client demo. What did we do wrong?

We switched customer segments without properly re-examining the value proposition. While both customer segments wanted Pinterest analytics, their understanding of “Pinterest analytics” varied greatly. To the agency folks, “Pinterest analytics” meant social engagement data from campaigns run on Pinterests site; new boards, successful repins, etc. Conversely, to brands “Pinterest analytics” meant data from engagement with the brand across all of Pinterest. Essentially, they wanted to know how many times images from their website were pinned. The minor difference of definition resulted in a drastically different feature set.

We’d built a product for our first customer segment but were trying to sell it to our second. And we didn’t even realize a difference until our first sales pitch.

We’ve learned our lesson the hard way; we now always vet our assumptions by asking customers to explain the value proposition back to us, in detail. Remember, while everyone may claim to go to the gym to get “in shape”, depending on who you ask, “in shape” may mean “ready for bikini season” or it may mean “strong enough to lift a car”.

The old annoying cliché about assumptions is half right. I certainly felt like a bit of an ass leaving that meeting.

Saving Marriages One Stand-Up at a Time

I once believed you could make anything work in a relationship. Part of me still thinks you can. The greater question becomes “should you?”. What are issues which are resolvable vs those that require you to move on?  These questions had been on my mind for a while and jumped front and center during my morning check-in with my folks on my way to work.

The conversation starts with the normal “how have the last couple days gone?”, however quickly she starts complaining about trivial things. I know my mother well enough that this isn’t normal behavior so I asked “How are things really doing?”, it seems that adding “really” does make a difference.   I find out my parents’  relationship is going through a rocky phase.  Various personal topics get touched on, the ones every relationship has gone through at least once and I can hear the pain in my mom’s voice at the upcoming hurdles.  It’s time for a trip back home to Ohio.

My mother picks me up from the airport  a couple weeks later and the tone is still the same.  I always have a tough time knowing what’s appropriate to say when  it comes to relationship issues between my parents. I see my mother’s pain but never know exactly what will make it go away.

In this instance I heard more about miscommunication, resentment over unfulfilled promises, and past-based assumptions than anything else.  I really wish these weren’t common issues, however these complaints are almost identical to those I’ve heard within corporate groups. In fact, the more I thought about it the more overlap I found. With a slew of  my intimate relationships having been a mess, I started wondering if the similarities were close enough that some of the tools and strategies could cross over. Could implementing some of the processes we use to reinforce group buy-in and communication have the same beneficial effects in a relationship as they do within organizations?  After all, what are organizations other than groups of relationships?

I resolved to test out some ideas I had with my folks.

I felt a little odd trying to run a small workshop with my parents. Who am I to teach my parents? In a company you have less emotional baggage, whereas with your parents it weighs heavily. You’re committed, you’ve got literal skin in the game: skin and blood and genes. It’s really a great exercise in active listening and humility.

Though they’re hesitant at first, after a series of questions and answers they commit.  We get started right away and I spend the next few hours applying everything I’ve done within teams at corporations to my parents relationship. We talk about working agreements, stand-ups, Kanbans, and commitment. We talk about ensuring respect, establishing empathy, and creating structure.  We talk a lot. Their brains are spinning, churning over thoughts of using these tools for the kids’ chores, church activities, and personal goals.

It’s working.

Though I’d hoped this exercise would help remove stress and conflict from my parents’ lives, it wasn’t until weeks later that I truly saw the real results.  Many of the complaints that were present prior to our discussion had dissipated.  Agreements had been made and had a structure for evolving, as well as a way to be kept in check if they weren’t.  Additionally, empathy was now present in all of their interactions. My father, a vehement opposer of lists and being told what to do, was now keeping track of tasks on the kanban board…and enjoying it. For him, the reward of seeing things move from the “to do” to “done” column provided a sense of accomplishment that replaced any sense of feeling nagged. It was simple: he could see what needed to get done, and my mother was able to visualize why priorities might change. They developed empathy; conversations changed from “why isn’t this getting done?” to “how can I help you with this?”.

Empathy in general is a key skill to have and is particularly beneficial in functional business relationships.  However, in personal relationships it’s become even more important with it’s strong ties to love. People want a loving relationship not just one that’s based on convenience or complacency.  Building empathy with your partner will directly impact having a loving relationship!  An interesting write up on the the connection of Love and Empathy can be found at

Now, it’s not all roses. My participation in the stand-ups with my parents decreased as time passed.  Though I’m not sure if the structures are still in place after a year, their conversation techniques have permanently changed, meaning that any future attempts to improve will be easier for them to take on. I’m planning another trip home soon and expect to continue working on strengthening their understanding of the principles behind these tools.

Over the course of working with many types of relationships some of the underlying questions that have come up for me are, “How can I merge my desire for immediate gratification with longer term contentment and happiness?” and “How can I ensure I continuously prioritize relationships?”. Though I’ve always said that my personal relationships are the most important part of my life, recently I’ve had to accept that this not actually the case.  It’s high time I also  start using these tools and systems to help make sure my  lifestyle lines up with my desired priorities.

Most people can relate to these problems in their personal lives.  Whether it’s their parents, siblings, friends, or professional relationship; I’d highly recommend trying it out.  Below is the format I used.  Feel free to tweak it and make it your own.  I’d love to hear your feedback on what worked for you!

1. Get buy-in to try something new

  • In this case I asked, “Would you guys be up for trying something new that I’ve been playing with for a while?  I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but it will only take a little while, and the results I’ve seen in companies have been pretty amazing.”

  • I don’t have a great new solution that will solve all their problems. There is no guaranteed outcome, just cases of past experience that indicate that it will likely help.  Don’t tell them you have magic fairy dust to solve all their problems. People are smart and they’ll know when you’re full of shit.

  • Stay away from implying you know more about their situation than they do. It will only annoy them. Try not to use “should” and “shouldn’t”.

2. Tell a couple of stories about the types of changes you’ve seen within groups.

  • Here I had some good examples of teams that suffered from major communication problems (both professionally and socially), who spent most of their time on Facebook, choose to procrastinate, didn’t have tools to communicate, and resented each other because they had no empathy for one another. The emotional distance that results from feeling more and more separate from each other dehumanizes the other person.  As they become more of an object that you perceive is causing suffering in your world, the more you separate yourself from that entity, which leads to less empathy and propagates the issue.  With this understanding it becomes easy to see how passive-aggressive behaviors in the workforce really aren’t that dissimilar from those in intimate relationships.

3. Developing working/relationship agreements

  • In this case I started with the main complaints of what each person was or was not doing. Some examples included never bringing receipts home, spending too much money on coffee, failing to plan trips ahead of time, spending too much money on gas, neglecting to schedule property viewings, not supporting decisions with kids, and nagging.

  • We next discussed the changes that would help things work, having them each ask the other if they would be willing to take responsibility for specific tasks, and whether they would agree to write those tasks on sticky notes to put on the wall for everyone to see.  We ended up with goals like “receipts will always be in the house at the end of the day”. Everyone needs to be completely in on the agreements.  No “kind of” type of language allowed.

  • I emphasized that nothing is permanent.  There are structures to allow for this to change when it makes sense for it to. This is only an agreement till it no longer works. This is really important for people that get stuck on not wanting to try something out for the fear of being stuck with it forever.

4. The magic of Kanbans

  • For those of you that don’t know, “Kanban” means signboard. It’s incredibly simple and yet impactful.  In short, it visually shows you what you’ve done in the past day, what you plan on doing the next day, and what’s blocking you from moving forward.  Yes, there are wip limits and much more, but we’ll keep it simple for the time being. The point is that communication is now visual, and it’s clear for everyone to see.

  • Start out simple and make 3 columns for To Do, Doing, and Done. You can always add more later but don’t overthink your options.

  • MAKE THIS VISIBLE. If it’s not in a place you look at everyday, you won’t do it. You’ll even want to hide it to not deal with it. Fight that urge.

  • Use the order as a priority and grab from the top of the list to move over.

  • Establish a “Work In Progress” (WIP) limit. Don’t put more than 2 things per person in the “Doing”. Get things done before starting more.

5. Relationship/work stand-ups

  • We all agreed to have 15 minute stand-ups to check in on only the following:  What did I accomplish yesterday? What am I committing to tomorrow? What do I need help with (blockers)?

  • This will seem odd to most people to apply in a home environment, however these are common things that we need to talk about all the time to build empathy and yet never really have structures for. Especially for families that don’t all eat together, have busy schedules, etc.

6. What needs to evolve (retrospectives)?

  • After discussing the rationale for these continuous improvements and an evolution to something more fulfilling, we made a commitment to implement our new strategies once a week.  There are many games to foster follow through, and I always suggest learning multiple fun games.  This needs to be something you look forward to and enjoy, otherwise it falls by the wayside until you have large enough problems that you need to bring it back.  Why not just build a system that constantly rewards doing it? This is also a great place to revisit agreements and make modifications.

18 Tips and Tricks for Conducting Killer Customer Interviews

Here are 18 tips and tricks for conducting killer customer interviews.

If you want to share this Slideshare, feel free to use this prewritten tweet: “Learn how to build products people want with @LIFFFT’s 18 Customer Interview rules and techniques!

Now – get out there, apply these rules, and get interviewing!

When to Call Bullshit on Paul Graham?

“You should call it 360scope. And get rid of the little bug guy” was PG’s advice, explained reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. “But reddit turned out to be a great name, and ‘the little bug guy’ has turned into one of the most iconic parts of the reddit community.

“Sometimes your investors know best. Sometimes they don’t. Even Paul Graham is wrong sometimes.”

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Alexis is on a 175 stop tour for his new book, Without Their Permission. On Monday night he stopped by Seattle’s Town Hall to be interviewed by Geekwire’s Todd Bishop. Topics ranged from the silly – alternative names for reddit (Ooglyaboo) and his favorite Star Trek captain (Picard, no hesitation) – to the more serious topics of his book – entrepreneurship and politics.

There was a lot of great advice for entrepreneurs from his time running reddit, Hipmunk, and Breadpig, his interactions with Paul Graham and YCombinator, and his time as an investor and advisor to over 60 companies.

One of the most valuable themes Alexis touched on is calling bullshit on some advice – even when it’s from someone like Paul Graham. “You’re going to know your users better than an investor or an advisor. They don’t spend all day, every day, thinking about your customers – but you do.”

I’ve seen a lot of interactions between early stage startups and mentors. Whether it’s at a Startup Weekend I’m facilitating or with a TechStars team I’m talking to, mentor whiplash can be a huge problem. One mentor tells you to focus on revenue, then an advisor tells you to focus on press, then an investor tells you to focus on number of users. All their advice seems good, but you only have the bandwidth to do one. Who’s right?

Sometimes, the answer is none of them. People will say things like “I think users will be turned off by the cute bug mascot” or “360scope would make sense because the scope of your news is everything, like every direction in a circle, and there are 360 degrees in a circle.”

The key words there are “I think that…” and “this would make sense…”

If you want to know how to effectively call bullshit on advice, cite your customers to back up why you think your advisor is wrong.

“Well, I showed 37 people the reddit alien, and the universal reaction was ‘awwwwww I love it!’”

“We interviewed 53 attendees at the conference this weekend, and the biggest complaint 50 of them had was not being able to find a place to stay. 43 of them even ended up crashing with strangers they met at the conference.” (Sounds like something the founders of Airbnb could have said to an advisor who challenged the premise of the company.)

Investors are an invaluable resource for insights and advice, but it’s critical to remember that you live and breathe your customers. If an advisor ever tries to predict what your customers will do based on gut instinct… get out there, interview some, and then maybe you can say “Bullshit. We have stories from a ton of people indicating otherwise.” Stories and proof trump gut instinct.

Even if that advisor is Alexis Ohanian.

Without Their Permission is available now, and check out Alexis’s tour dates to see if he’s coming to a city or University near you. It was a fantastic event, he is a great speaker, and it’s worth going out of your way to attend.

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How Shotguns and Politics Prepared me for Startups.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked. We’d spent the day coaching recent college graduates on customer interviews and were finally sending them out on their own. They were nervous, as most people are when confronted with the task of talking to strangers.

“Wind up with a gun in your face,” one of them responded, joking.

In June of 2012 I was talking to strangers in Seattle. I’d found myself in a rare part of the city where the sidewalks ends. Each house had a lawn to play on and trees to hide in, the forest having crept up from Puget Sound, eerily engulfing this little neighborhood in a shade unusual for the Seattle summer. I was doorbelling, walking door-to-door talking to voters about a political candidate. Despite having talked to thousands of strangers before, I was scared.

I approached a slate blue house with white trim. It had a small side porch accessible by a disorderly gravel path that looked as if it’d been strewn together. I hastened my step as I marched toward the door, excited and scared and determined to win these strangers over.

I knocked once. Nothing. I knocked again. Nothing. Finally, I tried the bell, in case the owners were downstairs or out back and couldn’t hear me knocking.

I heard stomping, huffing, and a deadbolt shift. My heart hastened, beating quickly, nervously.

The door creaked open. I smiled, ready to launch into my pitch.

I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

The weathered face behind the gun screamed at me, louder and louder, demanding why I was on her doorstep, why I hadn’t responded to her earlier asks of who was there and what they wanted. She screamed and screamed as I stood there motionless, sweating, awed and silenced by the angry women holding a gun at me.

Finally I spoke. Apologizing, profusely. Eyes at the ground. I was so sorry I’d bothered. I hadn’t heard her ask who was there and what they wanted. I was so, so sorry.

I had tears in my eyes and was shaking, shaken by the very first gun in my face.

I hated my life. I hated my life so much right now all I could think about was crying and quitting my job and never ringing a doorbell ever again. I hated strangers. I hated talking. I hated politics and I hated selling candidates to people on their doorstep. I wanted to go home.

Eyes down, I quickly sputtered out an explanation. I was working for a candidate I thought she might be interested in. He was a Democrat, just like her. We were spending the afternoon talking to voters about the upcoming primary.

As I spoke, explaining what I was doing on her doorstep, the weathered face softened and the shotgun lowered, resting nose-down on the floor.

The women, a frequent-voter, a democrat, confessed she was a marine biologist who rarely found a candidate worthy of a vote. None of them ever seemed to give a “rats ass” about the environment. She was an avid bird-watcher who loved spending afternoons in Carkeek Park. Blue Herons were her favorite, and their recent troubles in the park had left her disgruntled with our notoriously “environmentally-friendly” city.

Timidly, I launched into a more calculated version of my candidate’s environmental feats.

She smiled.

We continued talking for 20 minutes. At the end she asked for a yard sign and where she could find out more. She was excited to see him speak at some of the upcoming events in the community.

“Someone will pull a gun on you,” I told the teams as they filed out of the building.  They laughed and exhaled, amused by my seeming sarcasm. I laughed too, because I knew it to be true.

Talking to customers always starts off a little scary. Sometimes people yell at you, sometimes they reject you, sometimes they ignore you. At some point, you may even end up staring down the barrel of a gun. Whatever happens, hold steady. You can turn it around. Remember, you are not selling anything, you are here to learn. Tell them what you’re doing and why, then shut up and listen.

Whiteboard Wednesday: When to Stop Conducting Customer Interviews

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Do you ever worry that your product won’t succeed?

Talking to your customers is great, but you’ve got to ship something eventually. Right?

After months of customer interviews, you might wonder if you’re ready roll up your sleeves and start building.

Have you found the right solution to the right problem? Is it too soon to start development? What if you build the wrong product?

What if that next interview provides pivotal information?

We’ve all been there.

While you should never stop talking to your customers entirely, there are a few signs that you’re done with the “discovery” phase of customer interviews and it’s time to start building.

What are they? When should you stop conducting customer interviews? Kav answers these questions (and a few more) in this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday. Enjoy!

When to stop conducting customer interviews:

  1. Top 3 problem
  2. Same problems
  3. Be psychic
  4. Shut up and take my money

See you next Wednesday,

Lily and the LIFFFT Crew

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