4 Ways to Use Customer Insights to Build Better Products

What drives innovation in your company? Is it market trends? Leaders and creatives? Or do your customers dictate what direction you take?

It’s true sometimes that customers really don't know what they want. Self-styled innovators love bandying around a quote attributed to Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

But like all great pieces of wisdom, there's the danger of over-applying it. Often, the best thing a business can do is go directly to consumers and ask what they want.

Build Up With Customer Insights

LEGO's famous building blocks are so popular because they allow users to be creative. You can either follow the instructions in your set, or you can take those same pieces and create something completely different.

Instead of dictating what customers should do with their product, LEGO embraced that user creativity and started LEGO Ideas.

The LEGO Ideas builders submit design concepts, and other LEGO fans can vote on which designs are the best. From there, the most popular ideas go to market, and LEGO enthusiasts around the world can purchase them.

The original designer gets rewarded with a percentage of the sales and the thrill of seeing her idea enjoyed by others. It's a perfect example of user connection.

While LEGO Ideas uses customer insights brilliantly, many companies lean too heavily on Ford's alleged edict — a CB Insights survey of 101 failed startups revealed that 42 percent faltered because they didn’t properly satisfy a market need.

Taking a more customer-centric approach to product development might have given some of those unsuccessful ideas a longer shelf life.

Slip Into Customers’ Shoes

Gathering and utilizing customer insights is critical for every business — even those that believe they have the next Model T. Here are four steps to follow:

1. Go to the source. 

Airbnb’s early days were fast and furiously successful. The co-founders rented out air mattresses in their San Francisco apartment and attracted tons of interest, which both surprised them and filled them with a great deal of confidence.

But it was a trip to Y Combinator — something Airbnb leadership initially balked at — that helped take them to the next level.

It was there that Y Combinator founder Paul Graham suggested that Airbnb’s co-founders go to New York and speak with their users. The impromptu focus group allowed the executives to help their New York customers write better descriptions, take better photos of their properties, and generally jazz up their listings. From there, the numbers took off.

Connecting with customers on any level is a direct path to more insightful product development, but clients can be helpful, too. For instance, as part of Yeti's product design process, the company and its clients create an empathy map together. Working on the map together exposes the company to new ideas from the client's side.

2. Start conversations early. 

There's no bigger waste of time and money than developing something customers will hate. The best way to dodge that pothole is to ask customers what they want before you start building anything.

For example, look at the D.C. United soccer club. Sports fans are sensitive, especially to a sudden team rebrand that seems more corporate-driven than grassroots-based. So prior to its rebrand, D.C. United collected fan insights.

The organization started with online focus groups, which helped it identify fans' concerns. From there, the front office conducted a survey that included the most important items pertaining to the rebrand. Then using that data to inform the changes being made to team merchandise and marketing. In the end, the new initiative kept old fans and attracted new ones to the team.

3. Listen actively. 

D.C. United's successful rebrand is partially due to gathering early fan feedback. Because the feedback informed every subsequent step of the process, the focus groups were especially critical. 

Successful focus groups usually feature skilled moderators that ask good questions, react appropriately, and listen attentively and sincerely. During a focus group for a chocolate maker, the moderator listened and allowed the women in the group to express how they really felt about chocolate.

Attendees didn’t complain about price, packaging, or taste; they discussed how the guilt they felt about buying chocolate kept them from purchasing more. That's an insight that only a tactful, skilled moderator could pull out. When it’s time for your company to organize a focus group, find someone to lead it that can inspire honest, constructive feedback from customers.

4. Apply and adapt. 

There's no sense in sticking with something no one wants. If your customer insights are telling a different story than you tell yourself, it's time to be humble and pivot.

When he started Avon, founder David McConnell wasn’t having much luck selling books door to door. However, his female customers seemed more interested in the complimentary perfume samples than the books themselves, so he pivoted and made his own perfume product and recruited women to sell them door to door instead of him.

Maybe McConnell would have been a bookseller instead, but the market doesn't always align with our perceptions of it. People like browsing bookstores and taking their time before purchasing something. With perfume, the impression is immediate: Either you like the scent or you don't. The latter is obviously much more conducive to traveling sales.

No matter what business you're in, the customers always come first. There's no point in developing an idea or product without a connection to the audience it serves. Keep your eyes and ears open to the people who matter most: your buyers.