They are some of the coolest kids on the innovation block. Every company, it seems, wants to be like Airbnb, Apple, Netflix, Robinhood, Venmo or Zoom — disruptive businesses that didn’t just improve on existing products and services but created entirely new markets.

But too many companies and the product development teams within them aspire to be the next breakthrough brand without understanding how those cool kids got to be so disruptive.

Spoiler alert: They did it by looking beyond ease of use and clever design — the bare minimums in designing successful products — and delving into deeper questions about what would dramatically make customers’ lives better or easier.

Innovators Have Deep Connection to Customer Experience

Thanks to their profound sensitivity to the customer perspective, super innovators don’t merely build a better mousetrap and figure out who might use it. They envision and construct an entirely new experience. And they make sure that new experience truly matches — on an emotional level — customers’ wants, needs, and pain points.

Every digital product team wants to be customer-driven, but it’s not easy. These folks face intense pressure to quickly devise new offerings at a time when customer behaviors and expectations keep changing, and market conditions become ever-more unpredictable.

Many teams respond by making high-risk decisions that give short shrift to the customer perspective in favor of fast and “good enough.” Short development cycles may seem like the right thing to do to make incremental gains in highly competitive spaces, but it’s a myopic approach.

Ultimately, product teams help build brand buzz and loyalty when they listen to and observe the people for whom the products are being created. That is the sure path to identifying the right problem to solve and which solution best addresses it.

And they must do this at multiple points in the development process — not just immediately before the product is released in an effort to “validate” it.

It can’t be overstated: To drive business growth, product teams must make better decisions by incorporating customer insight throughout the product development process. That way, they can get steady feedback to learn, improve and iterate every step of the way.

Related Article: Voice of the Customer: What Is It and Why Does It Matter for CX?

How Product Dev Teams Can Overcome Challenges

The challenge for product development teams comes down to a trio of priorities: Minimizing risk, getting product right the first time and reducing rework.

To cover these bases, product organizations should always follow these five principles:

Set Out to Regularly and Programmatically Understand Customer Needs

This is especially important to get right before writing a single line of code. Clearly understanding the customer pain and identifying and attacking a problem that’s worth solving is the first step to launching a successful product.

No matter how well an organization thinks it knows its users, teams must step out their own worlds and into customers’ realities at every juncture. This customer-focused ethos should be every team’s guiding philosophy 24/7/365.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: 4 Ways to Drive Better Voice of the Customer Feedback

Never Underestimate the Power of Observation

Organizations often have assumptions about how their customers use something. They may even have data that supports those assumptions. But without observing live humans, no one really knows how the experience is working and why they are engaging in certain ways.

Watching people using a product in the market or in development is the most effective way to build a better product. Capturing interactions, reactions, behaviors, and emotions as they engage with an experience helps teams understand what’s working well, what’s not and what needs to improve.

Don’t Let Data Replace Direct Customer Feedback

Product teams receive a panoply of data aimed at identifying market trends and customer needs and motivations. But there still needs to be a way to get to the why behind the data. Direct customer feedback provides a wealth of information that just can’t be derived from any other source.

It’s crucial to deeply understand customers in their own voice and observe them as they interact with any of the company’s digital experiences. This is especially critical for product teams that want to be customer-driven in their discovery and design phases.

Related Article: Here's What I Learned About Customer Experience From One Pharmacy Trip

Inform All Decisions With Customer Input

Don’t fall prey to the temptation to race down certain paths to meet tight deadlines without thoroughly determining whether the approach or the concept is absolutely the right one from the customer’s vantage point. Never forget that understanding people’s thoughts, perceptions and feelings helps identify gaps in an experience and spotlights the compelling and valuable problem to solve.

Find Ways to Socialize Customer Insight Across the Organization

This builds a shared, institutional understanding of the customer. Consider creating a library of insights for people to easily search and share with decision-makers company wide. By building this shared understanding of the customer, teams can align around their core needs, make customer-centric decisions and act with urgency when an issue with the experience needs to be addressed.

Conclusion: Earn Your Customer-Centricity Label

As these five approaches show, it’s essential for product development teams to observe, listen, process and boil down customer feedback and perspectives. Then it’s up to them to never stop gathering feedback to ensure their solutions solve problems that customers care about, with the best possible experience.

Companies can’t credibly claim to want to be "the next Airbnb'' without committing to the customer-centricity that made those companies what they are.

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