How Much Customer Research Is Enough When Designing New Products

February 7, 2022

Thanks to the proliferation of start-up literature, we know that any product-development process should start with an unparalleled understanding of the user for whom you’re designing the product. It’s clear that consumer research is at the top of the to-do list for any entrepreneur or product manager exploring a new problem area. However, what’s often less clear is what the scope of this research should be.

Spending too little time conducting primary research would hamper your ability to discover real customer needs around which you could design a successful business. In contrast, spending too much time could delay your beginning product-design iterations and, thus, deprive your team of precious learnings that you could gain by doing usability testing. There is no clear-cut answer or rule of thumb for how much consumer research to conduct. But there are some helpful signals you can watch out for that can help you to determine whether you should keep investigating or pull the plug on research and start solutioning.

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Signs You’re Doing Too Little

There are several simple sense-checks that can help you know that investing a few more days on customer research would be worthwhile. If one or more of these signs exist, you should revisit your previous interview notes or perhaps schedule a few more customer-interview sessions to drive that last bit of insight you need before moving forward. Here are some possible deficiencies in your learnings that you should consider:

  • Being unaware of your target customers’ journey from start to finish—Building an appreciation for your customer’s end-to-end journey is probably the first thing you should do. If you’re still unsure about all the steps customers should take, how customers’ emotions vary, who they’re interacting with, and what tools they’re currently using along the way, you should keep learning until you’ve laid out a clear—and preferably visual—customer-journey map. This can help you to better define where precisely in that journey your solution should fit.
  • Not knowing how customers who are adjacent to your core target look or how your target customer base breaks down—Establishing personas can help you differentiate important characteristics among similar user types. By outlining their actions, needs, behaviors, and desires, you can better define exactly what target users you want to win. As generalizable as user actions might be, no market is truly singular, so make sure you draw out distinctions and similarities within subgroups of consumers to better define whose needs your product is really addressing.
  • Not having a particular customer’s voice in your head—You must capture the experience of a single, identifiable customer who you think epitomizes your target user and use that customer to rally your team. The power of specific user stories is immense and can be highly effective in pitching your venture to others. Building a new venture is tricky because the path is full of distractions and possibilities. The voice of the consumer can be your compass. Revisit your research until you’re able to pull out enough customer verbatims to ensure user centricity among your team.
  • Being unsure about how customers would describe the problem in their own words—Consumers tend to have different mental models and concepts that they use to explain the same problem. To ensure that you optimize all your copy and marketing for customer conversions, you must speak consumers’ language. So avoid using jargon and complex constructions. Use consumers own words wherever possible.
  • Lacking adequate ways to gauge how customers perceive your competitors—Before you design and build anything for your audience, there’s so much you can learn from what they think about products that already exist in the marketplace. So make sure you’ve had ample opportunity to ask consumers about what products they’ve seen, heard of, or used before—the competitors playing in the same arena. Ask consumers for their thoughts about those solutions—and why they did or did not enjoy using them. If they’ve never tried those products before, why not? What would change their mind about a product?
  • Being unclear on how the problem you’re solving compares to other painpoints in your customers’ lives—It’s crucial that you grasp how the painpoint you’re focusing on solving stacks up against your audience’s other relevant circumstances and issues. Do they care enough about this painpoint to give you the time and money to solve it? Or is there a more important problem on which you could and should be focusing?

Signs You’re Doing Too Much

Now, let’s look at the other extreme. Technically speaking, there might be no such thing as too much customer research because the more you investigate and learn about your customer base, the better this would supposedly inform product design. However, realistically speaking, spending too much time on customer research can present some serious risks to your business. These risks could include delaying product-development timelines, allowing your competition to get ahead, losing focus, and getting stuck in analysis paralysis. There are a number of signs you should bear in mind that can indicate you’re ready to progress to the next stage of development, as follows:

  • Your getting a little too fancy or complicated with user personas and customer journeys—Remember, the purpose of research is to advance clarity, not cause confusion. If you’re finding yourself knee deep in data, trying to account for every permutation of your personas and their nuanced journeys, it’s time to stop and simplify. Your goal should be to capture just the right amount of complexity, so keep your personas simple and avoid getting too creative with your customer journeys. Generalize where possible and try to create models that your team can easily reference—models that can guide you onward.
  • Hearing the same feedback over and over again—Repeatedly getting the same inputs from different, unrelated customers is a sign that you’ve already identified a pattern. If the next few customer conversations yield limited new insights, it’s probably a good time to move on to solutioning.
  • Taking too much time before prototyping—It is hard to put time limits on when you should move on to such work—mainly because the right answer depends on how much day-to-day capacity you have for pushing your ideas forward. (Maybe you’re exploring ideas in your free time outside of work.) But, if you’re working on your product full time, months have already passed, and you haven’t yet gotten around to building it, you should probably reevaluate your progress. Explore some ways to move forward with prototyping and testing your learnings and assumptions so far.

When prototyping and testing, you would be better off going for quick sprints that target particular assumptions or problems. Avoid getting stuck in analysis paralysis. Remember, customer research is a means to an end: building a minimum viable product (MVP) that you can test. It’s okay if you don’t know or fully understand everything about your customer base. In fact, your learning only deepens once you have something you can put in front of your customers.

The Bottom Line

User discovery should be as granular as possible. Identify the types of customers present in a product space and what their journeys could look like. Understanding customers’ decisions, questions, and low points makes you better equipped to decide who to build your product or service for and what problems you want to solve within their journeys. Initially, you should push for complexity so you can appreciate nuances.

However, you should then endeavor to achieve simplification. Generalize to a point that allows you to make broad-based decisions. There is no singular customer journey—not even for one persona. Your aim should be to conduct enough research to assess what critically relevant learnings are necessary to establish a working model that allows you to take action.

Your goal should be to optimize your research process to hit a sweet spot in customer-insight development that embraces complexity while striving for simplicity. Being mindful of how much time and effort you should invest in research can help you to achieve this goal and, ultimately, lead to your designing better products faster. 

Venture Designer at Create

New York City, New York, USA

Aayush GuptaAayush’s passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and design has led him to a variety of international experiences: He currently works at Create, a venture studio that twenty of New York City’s most successful founders are backing. He previously worked for Fortune 500 clients at Frog Design, part of Capgemini Invent, helping client such as McDonalds, Vanguard, and Stanley Black & Decker. Given his experience with the innovation process and business launches, Aayush enjoys exchanging ideas with others in this space to help shape where this exciting sector heads next.  Read More

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