Why We Have Customer Development


Recently at Automattic we've had a few people who have become interested in customer development: more specifically customer interviews and this makes me really excited. It's something that I do all day long and I think it's really valuable to the product and the company.

Customer Development is Business Insurance

Customer development has two important functions.

  • Make sure the company doesn't waste time & money building features or products people don't need
  • Refine & reprioritize the product backlog so we build the highest value features first

You can think of customer development as insurance to make sure the company is building the right product at the right time. If a company has infinite time and money you don't need customer development because you can immediately fix any mistakes you make but in the real world you need to make sure you're building the right product at the right time.

There are a lot of tools for customer development from surveys to interviews. But today I'll just be talking about the best way to interview a customer for a particular feature you have in mind.

Speaking in Abstract

In the past I've had interviews with customers and directly asked them what they thought about feature x or feature y and usually they agreed with me. That was of course not because I had fool proof ideas but because they probably felt awkward telling me my ideas were stupid or unnecessary. One of the most useful tactics I learned while practicing customer development was to speak in the abstract.

Instead of asking someone:

What do you think of adding additional reporting features to WooCommerce?

I ask people how they handle reporting:

How do you currently handle reporting in WooCommerce?

This let's people be the expert. They can tell you all about how the handle reporting. They'll tell you all of the nuances that you wouldn't otherwise know about. You'll get answers like:

  • I don't really do any reporting. As long as I sell $5,000 of product a month I know I have enough money.
  • I export all of my reporting to a 3rd party tool.
  • I love your reporting. The ability to compare this month's numbers against last month's numbers is really useful.
  • I hate your reporting. I can't believe there's no way to export the data as a CSV.

When you ask the first type of question you put people into a binary situation and life is rarely binary. There's all sorts of nuance that you can get out of an interview so speak in the abstract. Let them first tell you about their current situation before you plant any ideas in their head. If you do have a product enhancement in mind and you interview 10 customers and not a single one of them brings up a pain point relating to that enhancement it's probably not something worth doing. At best it's going to be one of those “nice to have” features instead of a feature which people rave about to their friends.

There's a lot you can get out of customer interviews you just have to pay attention to the nuance.

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