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    What customers are you creating?

    Last week I had a chance to facilitate a couple of great sessions of customer development with nine companies gathered for the TechBA Bootcamp in Seattle. Just in case you haven't heard a lot about lean startup or lean user experience (UX), customer development is a methodology developed by Steve Blank that focuses on finding out about the goals, behaviors and motivations of your customers.

    In practicing customer development we ask some very basic questions:

    • Who are my customers?
    • Where can I find them?
    • What do they really need?
    • How do they behave so I can recognize them?
    • Can I find a pattern and group them in some way?

    Using lean methodology to try and answer these questions means that we need to have some way to make a guess (also called a hypothesis) of who our customers are so that we can then "get out of the building" and check those assumptions by interacting with live humans in their natural habitat.

    But first we have to get our "guesses" down on the page so we're not running around like crazy people. Lean UX brings a variety of helpful techniques and process from traditional product development. These methodologies allow companies and teams to "learn to fish" in defining who their customers are, as well as, what problem is being solved or desire fulfilled for each group of customers.


    One tool that we use in customer development is to create a "persona" that provides us a snapshot or archetype for the people we think are our customers. I like to think of them as my "people prototypes." What is deeply counter-intuitive about this process is that it requires us to create a very specific fictitious person - 1 individual who is "representative" of a group of people out in the world with similar needs, behaviors and sometimes attributes.

    It's also important to create an appealing person - one who stays with us and who we begin to care about in our product development.

    It turns out that our brain isn't very good at understanding and recognizing abstractions and "ideas" when it comes to people. Just because we create a "group" doesn't mean we recognize them when we're moving around out in the world. It is however good at matching and grouping pictures and stories as more or less alike. It automatically creates these groupings and "rules" for you in the form of assumptions. The brain then uses these rules (habits) to choose and drive behavior - unless the rules are challenged and reorganized by conscious process and learning.

    The mind is also very touchy about "strangers" in any circumstance - seeing them as dangerous. This is why all of us struggle to do customer development and actually talk to the nice people - it's so much easier if we just use our unconscious assumptions as "true" and dive right in to the "real" work.

    The only problem with allowing unconscious assumptions to run the show is it increases our risk hugely - if you don't know if your assumptions about people and markets are accurate, how can you know what's working? 

    Create Your First Customer Guess
    A great example of how to build a clear picture of one of our customer's comes from LUXr. In the next few weeks I'll be teaching a workshop on creating these customer personas or you can learn more by working your way through LUXr's 7-workshop online offering.

    A first draft of a persona for a personal growth product

    LUXr takes you through the process of naming and quick sketching YOUR customer in a location that makes sense. This may seem kind of dumb at first but as your brain engages and if you can push through the confusion to choose one thing - it begins to create a human story rather than just a murky idea of what "they" might be like. At this point - you typically have no idea who your customer is - so choose one and go.

    I can guarantee that talking about Ben or Michelle in your day-to-day is far more likely to bring about useful, delightful offerings than simply talking about "our users." 

    The idea isn't that this sketch is realistic or right - but rather that it allows you to relate to this person who you are creating as your customer. Is Michelle happy? Sad? Frustrated? What is Michelle thinking? What in that picture makes Michelle YOUR customer? Being specific, and yet playfully sketchy to get around your internal censor, gives your brain the information that it needs to begin "seeing" and "matching" in the world around you.

    Then we move into demographics. These are just the facts about the person. We want to choose facts that are relevant for our product. This is a specific person. We might want to share Michelle's exact age, city they live in, job they have. We choose facts that support this being our customer. Again, counter-intuitive. Does that mean if we talk to someone that doesn't match this demographic exactly that they aren't "right?" No, it simply means that we're creating a clear picture of this one person so that they can become more "real" and 3-dimensional.

    Then we dive into the really good stuff as we create behaviors that Michelle has that make her our customer. I like to say that these are the ways that I might recognize "Michelle" out in the wild. What actions does Michelle take that either put her into the problem space my product is trying to solve or predisposes her to be delighted by the additional capabilities my product provides?

    Needs and Goals
    And then we ask why Michelle does those actions. What are Michelle's needs and goals? These are not abstract, generic goals that we all "should" have but rather the driving forces in Michelle's life.

    When your brain begins to protest, "I don't know what the heck this person needs." Keep guessing. Your brain is making these assumptions unconsciously and driving your decision process about what to design and develop in your product. Don't you think it's smarter to get it down on paper and start doing - start understanding the person you're creating this for? This isn't a one shot deal. You'll get plenty of chances to correct and tweak. For now, just make it up as accurately as you can. Tell one possible story. Guess. 

    Curiouser and curiouser
    When we back up and look at what we created one thing that is generally true about our first version is that the person is pretty "generic." See if you can get more specific. You may have unconsciously created someone you know - exactly. Or maybe you've created a clone of yourself - "Hey, I'm the customer of this product," you say. See if you can shift it so you're forced to find people you don't already feel like you "know." Tough to listen and learn if you're stuck in "I already know that." 

    Can you make Michelle a person that you actually like? Can you tweak the description so she's interesting to you? NOT the SAME as you - just interesting. Don't make her too wacky - just interesting. Is this someone that you would want to talk to - that you would be curious about? Perfect. Now you're ready to test your assumption.

    You'd be amazed how often we create customers who we don't really like and who don't interest us. Ah, that crafty brain at work again - trying to convince us that we don't really need to go out and talk to those "annoying, stupid, frustrating, strange, scary, not us" people. But maybe, just maybe, I might want to go out and talk to a few "Michelle's." Therein lies the game.

    Do you begin to see? We really are creating our customers. Why not create customers that we care about, that inspire us and that we work to delight at every turn? Why not create customers that we actually want to get out and interact with all the time? What if every human we interact with was valuable and to be learned from? That would make life interesting wouldn't it?

    They're your people - so make them awesome.

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