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Luring the Mouse: Building for Consumers – By Jason Cole

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Author: Jason Cole, Senior Technology Executive

If large enterprise customers are elephants, then direct consumers are mice.  You hear them skittering around the edges of your product, nibbling here and there but scattering the moment you try to talk to them.  Occasionally a large group of them will band together and make their presence felt, but generally not in the way that you’d like (when was the last time you saw a Twitter uprising from consumers saying how much they loved a product?).  How do you build something that you know will delight this amorphous mob?

I’ve seen two successful approaches to building for consumers:

1. Cultivate a strong customer voice.

2. Build a product you love.

Either approach will help solve this conundrum, but they work best when used together.

Cultivating a Strong Customer Voice

Most product companies designate someone to be “the voice of the customer,” but in most cases, the more appropriate title would be “Customer Ventriloquist,” as these people think about what they would probably do in the customer’s place and then write that down as a set of requirements.  Talking to real customers takes work and can lead to uncomfortable moments when they tell you what they really think about your product.  It’s also the only way to give customers a genuine voice.

Finding users who are willing to talk to you can be like coaxing the mice out of the baseboards, so you must offer some bait, a reward that motivates them to spend some of their valuable time helping you make the product better.  Here are three kinds of users and some ways you can draw them out.

  • Power users: these people have made your product a core part of their daily lives, and have the scars to prove it.  They know all the tricks and have strong opinions on how to make your product better.  These folks are easy to find: just look through the usage logs or your customer support queue and find the names that pop up the most frequently.  These users are motivated by recognition and the opportunity to set the direction of your product, so draw them in by offering them a seat on your customer council, power user forum, or other appropriately important-sounding forum.  Use them for deep insights into the strengths and weaknesses of your product, while recognizing that they probably don’t represent the common user’s worldview.
  • Common users: these are the core of your user base, the people who use your product regularly either because they want to or they have to, but who move on to other things as soon as they get what they needed.  They’re probably familiar with core features and screens but have no idea how to get the most out of the product (and may not really care).  Since these users probably represent the majority of your revenue, you need to keep them happy, or at least try not to drive them away.  Get the common user’s opinions through user surveys and intelligent customer support scripts and follow-ups that go beyond problem identification.  Lure them in through small rewards like gift cards and product discounts that compensate them for their time.
  • New users: to really understand the difference between a good user experience and one that’s just bearable, you need to talk to new users.  New users’ fresh eyes will immediately catch pain points to which your more seasoned users have become desensitized, and they’ll help you see old features in new ways.  Find these users in your prospect pool and marketing lists, and reward them handsomely for spending a couple of hours walking through your product in usability tests and user interviews. Their feedback might be uneducated, so you’ll have to sift through it to see what’s useful, but they can often provide the best insights leading to revolutionary changes in your product if you’re willing to listen without rebutting their naiveté.

Building a Product You Love

All the user interviews in the world are no substitute for firsthand experience.  Before you can ask anyone to tell you what it’s like to use your product, you must use it yourself outside of the safe confines of a QA environment.  You need to feel the pain of its bugs and the joy of solving a problem or completing a task with the software you’ve built.  Your experience of your product must move from intellectual to visceral.

The best products have always been built by people who personally experienced the problem their product solved and then built a product they loved to use themselves.  While the phrase “eating your own dog food” has been around for years, I’ve found that this mentality leads to companies who feel as excited about using the beta versions of their products as they would be about having Alpo for dinner.  Instead, try “loving your product first” and then let your customers in on the fun.

Together, these two approaches lead to products that customers love and that companies love to make.  With that combination, you can revolutionize an industry.

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Jason Cole

About Jason Cole

Jason Cole has spent the last 20 years helping software and technology startups scale and achieve rapid, sustainable growth while creating excellent work environments. He has a passion for building high-performing teams and great software products and for lifting up the next generation of entrepreneurs. He is a mentor at Boomtown Startup Accelerator in Boulder, where he helped design and run the product/CTO track in their 12-week program.