According to a study conducted in 2018, over 30,000 new products are introduced every year; however, it is estimated that more than 95 percent of these products fail. While many failed products provide a solution to a consumer need, they often fail when it comes to understanding their consumers — this happens when companies fall short on completing constructive user research.
Ashley Brasier, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, recently noted in her article titled “The Customer is (Not) Always Right” that “Most products fail, but not for lack of trying. Over $45B is spent by companies each year on market research, and more than 40 percent of companies have a dedicated team for user research. Despite these efforts, a quick Google search of ‘product flops’ says it all: watermelon-flavored Oreos, purple EZ-Squirt ketchup, and even Google Glass” are just a few examples. Brasier continues:
So why is it so hard to understand consumers and what they want? Can’t we just ask? Well, yes, but asking is only the first step. Customers are (not) always right. What we as customers say we want is often different than what we want. Truly understanding customers requires listening, but also careful observation and product testing…customers would say one thing, but mean another. When they said they wanted more choice, they meant they wanted fewer, yet more curated choices. When they said they wanted to be inspired, they first wanted to be educated.
As a solution to this ever-present problem, Brasier has created a three-pronged approach to developing a technique aimed at understanding what the consumer needs. This approach outlines a process through which a founder can triangulate customer needs, which includes listening, observing, and product testing. If implemented appropriately and used to understand the customer early, according to Brasier, the number of times you have to iterate later on will be drastically reduced. “As such, user research is a critical capability area to embed in your startup from the outset.”
About Ashley Brasier
Ashley Brasier has been working with startups since the beginning of her career; through the years, she has led several user research projects for startups, including Thumbtack, BetterUp, Fundbox, and a pre-launch Indian beauty brand, which provided her with substantial expertise and experience in the realm of developing an effective market research technique.
Brasier graduated from Duke University Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Media Studies and a certificate in Market and Management. Later, Ashley graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she participated in the Stanford-Tsinghua Exchange and the Global Management Immersion Experience.
Her resume includes working as Senior Associate Consultant at Bain & Company; Category Manager at Thumbtack; Growth Advisor and Consultant for various startups; and now, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.
LISTEN, OBSERVE, TEST
The three-step approach Brasier has developed pulls data from real-life anecdotes, including her work with Indian beauty brand creator, Divya Vishwanath.
“Listening is where most companies start, and it’s unfortunately where most end. While listening is a good place to start, it will almost always lead you down the wrong path if you take what the customer says at face value. Instead of just focusing on the ‘what,’ focus also on the ‘why.’ Try to understand your customer’s motivation and aspiration. Build a hypothesis that can serve as a starting point for further observation and testing.” – Ashley Brasier
Useful listening does not simply consist of listening to what the customer says; as Ashley mentioned, the customer is not always right. To develop an effective business model, an entrepreneur must understand the motivation behind the consumer’s needs. For example, tech companies creating new applications need to develop an application that solves a person’s problem; a beverage company should create a beverage that is new to a client — say, an organic energy drink.
Companies cannot just launch a product because they believe it is a good idea; instead, they have to understand what their audience wants and why they want it. Still, the question remains: How do you hear what your consumers mean without relying on simply listening to their words? Brasier has concluded that there are two successful avenues to doing this: mall intercept and customer coffee.
A mall intercept is just what it sounds like — conducting small interviews with customers at malls. Brasier explains how this resource is useful in the beginning stages of developing a product and provides a tool for “getting to know your customer.” While conducting this experiment, companies should limit their customer questions to a maximum of three — the company’s goal is to optimize for volume and breadth of responses as opposed to depth.
To utilize mall intercepts, you need to understand who your potential clients are and where you can find them; this is not always at a mall, but the concept will remain the same. Identify a location that has high traffic with your target market and set up a space to conduct your research.
Customer coffee, the alternative avenue Brasier suggests, is a slightly more personable approach to understanding your potential consumers. The length of the interaction is longer — she recommends that it be 30 to 60 minutes — and provides a more in-depth understanding of the consumer’s response. To prepare, companies should write a set of interview questions and then use the questions as a starting point to the interview.
Brasier points out that the individual conducting the interview needs to be receptive to interviewees going off script, as this often provides the most honest feedback. Also, when sitting down with any potential or current consumer, always ask questions that determine why. Don’t forget that the goal is to assess motivation.
Reflecting on her past experiences, Brasier says:
For the Indian beauty brand, we spent over 30 hours listening to our customers — at the mall, at local Indian stores, and even in their homes. One thing we heard over and over again is that people didn’t want turmeric-based products. If we had stopped there, we would’ve missed a key insight — that the concern was about staining vs. the actual ingredient. By asking ‘why’ over and over, we realized people loved turmeric’s anti-inflammatory and acne-fighting properties, they just didn’t want any staining. The first product we ever trialed used non-staining turmeric, a key ingredient in Divya’s grandmother’s recipes. However, because of our extensive customer interviews, we focused a lot more on customer education and messaging than we otherwise would’ve, given existing misconceptions.
“Go out into the wild and spend time with your customers. Observe their routine and try it out for yourself. See what it’s like to run a small business or be a beauty influencer. In the words of Jane Goodall, see what responsibility you have to them.”– Ashley Brasier in “The Customer is (Not) Always Right”
Coming up with innovative ideas can be challenging. We live in a world of rapidly-evolving technology, which makes it difficult for companies and products to succeed. What is useful and popular one day may easily become unwanted and obsolete the next. Therefore, to identify how a product can overcome this overwhelming rate of change is for the company to get out to observe and experience the product to understand how it can be improved.
Again, it is not as easy as just asking the consumer what they need — a majority of the time, they do not know why the product is not meeting their expectations. Therefore, witnessing your product in use and the frustrations a consumer experience is an essential tool.
Brasier utilized this technique while working at Thumbtack:
When making product updates at Thumbtack, I often met with our service professionals in-person to observe them using the product in-situ. One afternoon, I drove to San Francisco’s Mission District to meet a Thumbtack caterer in her home. She was in the process of prepping for a dinner party that evening. As I observed her messaging with customers, I noticed that she checked her wall calendar several times. Recognizing the inconvenience, we talked about why she used the wall calendar vs. something like Google Calendar and what she would want to see if Thumbtack were to enable scheduling. The information gleaned from that one afternoon was critical to informing the scheduling features we later built into the product.
This process, which she relied on heavily while at Thumbtack to understand her consumers, is what Brasier has deemed the “follow-along” method. This is exactly what it sounds like: following the consumer on their commute, at the mall, or simply in their daily routine. This allows you to identify what challenges they are faced with and may inspire a company to create a product that solves one of the consumer’s problems.
When utilizing this method, Brasier recommends acting as a “friend and confidant as much as possible.” She reports that “It’s better to blend in, make mental notes, and take some pictures. Journal about your experience once you leave for the day. Capture as much detail as you can, focusing on emotions and motivations.”
There are two other methods for collecting similar data: what she calls “walk the talk” and “recorded sessions.” The first, “walk the talk,” implies that you as the company “become the customer as much as possible: use your product and use competitors’ products. You can learn a lot about competitors from looking at their websites, but can learn even more from shopping at their stores, interacting with their sales reps, and going through the end-to-end process (including payments, reviews, etc.).”
The second, “recorded sessions,” allows companies to observe customers engaging with online sources, such as apps, websites, and other online media. By using websites such as UserTesting.com, companies can gain insight into their consumers’ interactions.
Each of the above methods will allow startups to get to know the customer a bit more and validate initial hypotheses developed from the listening step.
“Once you’ve gathered information from listening and observing, refine your design requirements and build a prototype to test in the wild. At the earlier stages of a company, it’s okay for the prototype to be low-fidelity — e.g., a sketch or wire-frame… Having a physical object or representation for the customer to react to is critical for actionable feedback.” – Ashley Brasier in “The Customer is (Not) Always Right”
Giving the customer something tangible will provide you with new insight that the first two steps may have been unable to offer. However, do not spend an extraordinary amount of money on creating the prototype; instead, limit it to a prototype that simply allows the customer the interaction. One major mistake an entrepreneur can make is putting all of their capital into their prototype only to learn that it must be heavily revised, which leaves them with zero equity with which to continue their project. The reality is that all prototypes will need refining.
During this step, Brasier points out that you should not have to explain the product to the consumer — instead, “Ask the customer to tell you what they think it is and how they would use it. The best products are intuitive — your customer should be able to ‘get it’ without much prompting.”
Brasier has defined three techniques to test: “Role play,” “Questioning,” and a “Focus group.”
Role-playing includes having “the customer walk you through how they would use the product.” During this phase, you are testing the customer’s emotional response to the product: Are they excited or confused? Are there aspects of the product that are making the customer frustrated? Throughout their interaction with the product, create a map of the customer’s journey of emotions — at the end of the testing, you should be able to understand where your product needs improvements.
The next technique is utilized to “solicit honest feedback and creative input from the customers.” Brasier recommends having customers use the “I Like, I Wish, What If…” framework to help spark any creative ideas on what is working well, what could be updated, and where the next iteration of the product may take you. This provides the consumer with a creative avenue to assess the product without experiencing strictly negative reactions.
Last, a step which is well-known in the product testing world is using a focus group to understand the pros and cons of your product. Bringing a group of individuals together is a great way to gain insight into “when they agree with each other vs. when they disagree.” You will see which improvements can be made based on a group consensus and which would only respond to the opinions of one person.
Benefits of Product Testing
Conducting product testing through Brasier’s three-pronged process bears benefits beyond ensuring your product does not fail before it begins — it will also allow you as the creator to reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction, and provide creative insight on how the product can be enhanced over time.
However, this process is not as simple as asking a client to respond — it is necessary to understand the consumer’s motivations in wanting or needing the product and to comprehend their emotional response to the product. This is how a company can find success with a new launch.
At the end of the day, Brasier says, “Remember that the customer is (not) always right. It takes careful listening, observation, and testing to create a product with true staying power.”
Read more from Ashley’s company Lightspeed on Medium.