3 ways to understand your users

"High quality is important to us," says every single company. That makes sense as high quality equals happy customers. Moreover, it leads to engaged employees. Yet, despite the fact that most companies believe they deliver the highest quality products and services, often they have no idea if they really do. How can you be sure that you’re providing your users with what they really need?

Contact with the user

Of course you can use various techniques to help you better understand the needs of your users, such as User Stories, Persona, and User Story Map. These tools, however, only offer a hypothesis into your users’ needs. You can also (and even should) analyze data on the use of your products - what attracts people and what rejects them, what is easy for them and where they get lost. You can also collect feedback through various media. However, nothing can replace direct contact with the user to understand his real needs. And I do not mean to allow customers to call the hotline, meet the seller or contact the PR department. There they will only deal with company representatives - your "first line." If you want to create amazing products, then you must guarantee access to users for everyone in the company. The executive team defining the strategy, managers making key decisions and engineers developing your product must have visual and audio contact with customers! Otherwise, they will be detached from reality, deal with non-existent problems and/or implement inefficient solutions. That is why you need to make sure that every employee in your company is in constant contact with the user. How to do it? There are three key principles.

1. Talk to users

The conversation with the user seems so trivial and obvious that I shouldn't actually mention it. Still, many development teams don't have time because they’re "too busy coding." Unfortunately, this also applies to Scrum Teams, although contact with the user should, after all, be part of the Product Backlog Refinement and the Sprint Review. Interviewing the user should be a mandatory part of the work for such teams, not delegated to other departments of your company or external agencies.

Another common explanation for not having a face-to-face conversation is "we don't have access to our users" or "our users are dispersed in many locations." At the same time, it does not prevent the same companies from creating distributed development teams. The same tools they use for synchronizing teams can be successfully employed to interview users. And finding volunteers should not be a challenge. Many companies build a database of "trusted users" that can be contacted first. If you do not have such a list, then offering a small bonus (for example in the form of an Amazon voucher) should solve your problem. You can then make an announcement that you are looking for candidates for an hour-long interview and through simple surveys to find people within your target group. If your customers are a very specific group, then your sales department will probably be able to track the right candidates through their contact networks. Organizations of experts in a given field can also be a great source of potential clients for talks.

In December 2018, Wiktor Sarota, CEO of inFakt, spent two weeks traveling around Poland and talking to accountants using the inFakt platform. The trip not only helped to better understand their needs and prepare a strategy for 2019, but it also helped to pinpoint the problems that accountants face every day. Problems that, in many cases, were very easy to fix.

The creator of Slack, despite the rapid increase in the popularity of the application, had difficulty explaining to customers how their product differs from other communication tools. Therefore, in 2014, a dedicated team conducted the Google Ventures Sprint series, showing potential users a series of prototypes and collecting feedback from them on subsequent ideas for easy visualization of the goal and main advantages of the program.

2. Support your users

An even better technique is the cyclical work on the "first line" by all people in the company. This not only allows you to better understand users, but also allows you to learn about the problems and frustrations of the people responsible for contacting your clients. In my opinion, every programmer, tester, analyst or manager should spend at least one week each year working in the customer service department, or doing any other work requiring direct contact with the user. However, in most companies this seems impossible to do because front-line work is often less paid, and therefore perceived as inferior.

Every year before Christmas when there is a shopping spree in the United States, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, sits down with all of his employees in the customer service department. Of course, a company employing over 1,500 people can afford to hire a few more people for seasonal work. However, every employee, whether from HR, finance or any other department, is required to provide direct customer service. Thanks to this, Zappos can provide the "WOW effect" and boasts both a huge number of dedicated clients and very low staff turnover in the company.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group and whose assets are valued at nearly $5 billion, became famous in 2013 for being the flight attendant on an Air Asia flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. It was the result of a lost bet, not a strategic decision, but we must emphasize Richard's commitment, who even shaved his legs for the six hour flight.

3. Be your own customer

The third technique is "eat your own dog food," or use what you have created. A solution as obvious as it is, but is not commonly abided by. Although startups often use their own products, the larger the company, the lower the chance that it uses its own solutions. I would really recommend airline management to use their company’s services with other passengers. Boeing would gain even more respect by putting all of their management on a B737 Max test flight with new software. They could then, with a clear conscience, talk about how secure their solutions are.

On the other hand, when Toyota created the new version of Sienna in 2004, the United States, Canada and Mexico were chosen as the primary markets. That is why the chief engineer, Yuji Yokoya, visited all 50 states of the USA (including Alaska and Hawaii), all 13 provinces and territories of Canada and all of the states of Mexico. In each of them, Yokoya rented the earlier Sienna model to understand the challenges of users that he was unable to encounter in Japan. Thanks to this, the new version of the car was more resistant to side wind, more torsional and better adapted to the Canadian road profile. It also gained cup holders and a tilted snack table - elements not found in the Japanese models.

Hear your users

Of course, the goal of all of these techniques is to understand the world of your users and people who have direct contact with them. You must hear them and you must understand their problems. This does not mean that you have to listen to them, as blindly following the "requirements" of clients can be as damaging to your company as it is to ignore them completely. Therefore,

You should hear your customers but not necessarily listen to them.

How can you guarantee that all of your employees have contact with the user?