taking notes in a notepad
PHOTO: Sticker Mule

Silicon Valley can at times seem like an idea factory, a Wonka Chocolate wonderland for inventing the future and disrupting the status quo. Belief in that idea has launched a thousand startups.

So what if only a few reach the farther shore? That’s normal: new ventures and pursuit of the next big idea are a high-risk proposition. The next big idea rarely emerges fully formed.

Why do some innovators launch product after product that succeeds? Maybe it’s vision or genius. But much of that genius reflects a deep understanding and empathy for what motivates potential customers. Even when an idea arrives like a bolt from the blue during a brainstorm with your team or while you’re singing in the shower, it only resonates because you’ve developed a great understanding of what users really want.

Your Value Derives from Your Customers’ Needs

This should be obvious. As Marc Andreessen, one of the creators of the web as we know it, said: “Lots of startups fail before they ever get to product/market fit. My contention, in fact, is that they fail because they never get to product/market fit.”

In other words, they haven’t figured out the all-important product value for the user that keeps a customer engaged. Nailing down what customers find valuable and useful will help drive your next Big Idea, and get you closer to releasing a great product or feature.

Fortunately, most of us have empathy built in. So all we need to add are the curiosity and methods to make the most of it. That’s why effective product teams have developed repeatable, reliable processes for soliciting customer input, developing an understanding of their needs, and leveraging that insight and knowledge.

A Process for Discovering User Needs

A pillar of this ideation process is researching user demands and attitudes. Start by drafting a document laying out your process, including info-gathering guidelines and any salient context or background (based on a template you’ll use every time you launch into this phase of planning).

This user understanding action plan details the goals, mileposts, terminology and parameters involved, so everyone – your team, other stakeholders, maybe even select users — knows the objectives, details and business factors involved. This focuses your research (and ensuing persona and product development) so it doesn’t wander off track.

Some of what you may want to define here: What’s our target audience?  Are we surveying existing users or ones who aren’t on board? If both, how much weight are we giving to each? What’s considered valid and actionable feedback? What are the specific products, features, or functionalities that are going to be part of the conversation? What’s the competitive landscape? And when applicable, what are the regulatory or legal factors?

Related Article: Transforming Listening Into Action: Fortifying Voice of Customer Programs

Ask the Right Questions

Our next key document is the list of questions you want to have answered during your insight-gathering process. Every one is aimed at the same target: uncovering what constitutes actual value for those users.

Which questions work best within your situation may vary. But remember that real insight lies deep: what a user says off the cuff about a product or feature will almost never give you the sort of insight that drives great products.

Here are a few of the questions you can pose that get further below the surface than asking, “What product/feature would you like to see next?”

  • Why do you really want it? This question opens up a dialogue about your customers' deeper needs, and gets at their real motivations. For instance, adding a mobile app to an enterprise platform may seem like a no-brainer, but what’s the real value to the user? If they explain how they’re in a high-velocity sales category where lack of access equals lost revenue, you’ve found a way to enhance your value proposition — and inspire new features.
  • How do you do that now? Find out how they’re already performing (or not performing) a task your product/feature would handle, and ask them to demonstrate it.
  • What’s the hardest part of that (process/job/challenge)? What’s their biggest pain point — and opportunity for you?
  • How would the new product/feature impact your job? Or life, or career, or workday, or bottom line, depending on the context and user. Beyond pure functionality, what other rewards would they like to see? This gets at a deeper value proposition than just the immediate benefits the product provides.
  • How do you feel about what you’re using right now? Whether it’s your product or a competitor’s, this opens up a raft of follow-up questions about what works, what doesn’t, and so on.
  • What could be improved? Even if they’re one of your own users, get them to be as blunt and forthright as possible. Bringing pain points about any product into the light is the first step toward addressing them – and it shows you’re committed to improving their user experience.
  • How would you design the feature/product? Ask them for specific feedback about specific features, as that will be more actionable than blue-sky commentary about their “dream product” — though that may offer good intel, too.
  • Why did you choose us over competitors? This is a great question for existing users, since it helps you identify the features or functions that have the most bottom-line potential, guiding you in making improvements and building market advantage.
  • What would make you recommend a product/feature to others? This may not dictate product development, but it’s good to know — just ask your marketing department.

Ask the Right People

Who you speak to is obviously as important as what you’re asking, so solicit and evaluate feedback from the right audience. Here’s a simplified example:

  • In most cases, a product manager interested in boosting the bottom line is looking for product ideas that scale across their entire user base or potential market. But if he/she surveys 100 users, yet 50 of those respondents are from a single key account, the next product iteration might be skewed toward a feature or upgrade that’s only attractive to that account, with less value for other users.
  • The reverse holds, too: If the product manager wants to provide an “enterprise” upsell version for bigger customers, they may want to not give as much weight to the input of individual or baseline users.

So careful segmentation of customer feedback is vital to pinpointing the priorities of different users. Knowing what feedback is coming from which user group helps you define a more accurate and compelling product roadmap, and build a more precise customer persona (more on that below).

Related Article: Put Voice of the Customer Into Action With the Usability Approach

Use the Right Tools

How do you collect user feedback? Let us count the ways …

  • Surveys, delivered via email, embedded in your site or even in your actual product, are the bedrock tool for getting feedback. Some best practices for these surveys? Include open-ended questions (“How do you feel about the product?”), because multiple-choice questions and rating scales may give you data, but not spontaneous, opinionated insight. Moreover, keep each survey short, no more than five to 10 questions. Surveys that take less than a minute to complete get far better engagement, as you’d expect.
  • Direct outreach is priceless for getting at the true motivations and passions your users feel toward your product. It doesn’t scale as a quantitative tool for SaaS, but for qualitative insights, it’s unbeatable. We’ve already touched on one way of reaching out to users: listening and conversing through an advocacy program where you’re an active participant in user groups, online communities and other forums. Another method? Identify a local user and take them to lunch, or set up a phone or Skype chat.
  • A web analytics platform like Google Analytics can actually lead to insights by tracking visitor behaviors on your website. A user who creates an account and continues engaging with your site over time is obviously finding value. Another may drop out. In either case, using email to send them a survey or direct query about their reasons may collect useful data.
  • Usability testing is always a rich trove of information, but it was an expensive proposition in the past. Today, services like UserTesting.com are getting popular by lowering the cost of that research, allowing project teams to audit (and even record) exactly how people react to a new app or feature.

Build the Right Personas

With good data and feedback about users in hand, product managers can apply it to SaaS user/buyer persona modeling. User research is only part of the mixture, though. The best SaaS personas are crafted by including input from multiple teams within a firm: the customer support team will have unique perspectives that aren’t the same as those of the growth marketing or product design team.

One caveat: in building a customer persona, don’t confuse your “best” customer (who may provide a disproportionate share of revenue, but doesn’t exist at scale) with your “ideal” customer (the middle-of-the-road user who makes up the broader audience). Build separate personas (and separate marketing campaigns) for each.

Personas are a tool for aligning product planning, development, marketing and other stakeholders around products with potent value propositions and real scalability. That alignment feeds a virtuous cycle of better products, marketing, and revenue: Cintell found that 71 percent of companies that exceeded their revenue and lead goals were using personas.

Use Your Judgement

Remember, user understanding is just one form of input. Strategic considerations, business needs and a forward vision for where a market is moving are just as important.

Moreover, user understanding and empathy for the customer should never be about simply embracing their feedback. Especially since the “wisdom of the crowd” is often fickle and misleading. Designing products around popular impulses doesn’t mean you’re providing true value, because users often don’t speak with a rational or single voice, may not understand their own needs, and never have your business concerns at heart. The product roadmap that’s dictated just on the basis of user feedback will result in crappy products that aren’t popular with anyone.

Developing user understanding means knowing them better than they know themselves. So your next great offering can surprise and delight them because they never predicted it — and never realized they needed it until that moment.