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The Hidden Parts of the Journey: How to Discover Customer Problems Worth Solving

Jan 14, 2021

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Daniel Kalick, Director of Strategy, Monstarlab

Launching a new product is inherently risky. It is impossible to guarantee success or predict exactly how customers will react. In short, there is no crystal ball to tell you what value proposition will lead to a breakthrough, what features customers really want, or what type of user experience they crave.

But product development is not total chaos, either. While there are things you simply cannot know before bringing a product to market, risk can be reduced by focusing on the right customer problems. Nailing that part of the process is the key to constraining the potential set of solutions, reducing distraction, and ultimately increasing the chances of shipping a successful product.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Large companies are typically swimming in data from disparate sources, making it hard to separate signal from noise when analysing the customer journey. Meanwhile, early-stage startups have the opposite problem — very little data to go on — and face pressure to ‘validate’ their ideas quickly, even if they have only interacted with a small sample of users.

So, if you are a big company or a small one, how do you know you are solving a worthwhile customer problem?

Part of the answer lies in where you look. At Monstarlab, we are often peering into less obvious places to discover unmet customer needs — investigating the end-to-end journey to find problems that are typically neglected. To do so, we draw on a range of methodologies, from human-centred design (HCD) to data science. And we adopt a few key principles along the way:

1. Develop informed hypotheses before exploring solutions

It is natural to begin the product development process with a great idea. And it can be motivating to start the ‘making’ part of the process in earnest. However, if the solution you are excited to test is based only on assumptions — instead of hard-won insights — there is a good chance you will waste effort fixing problems that do not matter. Take the time to first assess what qualitative and quantitative insights you already have, and what knowledge gaps you need to close.

2. Use ethnography and experts to go deeper on the problem-space

Once knowledge gaps are identified, it is easier to plot an effective research plan. User interviews are table stakes for any product development effort, but to truly identify neglected customer problems and challenge the team’s assumptions, it is important to go deeper, particularly for specialised products. Ethnographic methods are critical for understanding the mental model of your users and identifying pain-points that would otherwise remain overlooked. And interviewing experts can shorten the time it takes to get smart on a particular space.

3. Focus on the ‘in-between’ parts of the experience

We are often focused on the core part of the product experience — those key interactions that are essential to delivering customer and business value. But what happens before and after the core journey? And what about those critical ‘in-between’ moments of transition — from digital to physical touchpoint, for example, or from one digital service to another? The promise of frictionless design often breaks down in these areas. Plotting the end-to-end customer journey can help surface customer pain-points that too often slip through the cracks.

4. Treat employee pain-points like customer pain-points

The customer is always the main protagonist. But they are not the only cast members. In any product experience, crucial supporting roles are played by a host of company employees. That means it is important to understand, and solve for, the employee pain-points that stand in the way of best-in-class service. Applying the same research methods to the operations side of the business can help teams identify the neglected needs of employees.

5. Pressure test solutions before launching them

Prototyping has by now become a core methodology in the product development toolkit. But we predict pressure testing will soon set a new industry standard, particularly for enterprise-level products that marry digital and physical experiences. Pressure testing entails the re-creation of realistic product usage conditions in a lab environment, helping teams identify customer problems in those tricky ‘in-between’ parts of the service journey, including pain-points that arise with technical performance issues — all before bringing a product to market.

6. Live the product

Necessity is the mother of invention, and it is no wonder the best solutions are often built by those who experience a problem firsthand. It is therefore critical that product teams not only empathise with users through research but also routinely step into their shoes. This means teams should regularly use the products they have launched where possible, developing a first-person perspective of customer problems and frustrations. This method can be a powerful tool for developing informed hypotheses for optimising the product and solving customer needs.

Product development is an inherently risky endeavour. But the chances of success can be increased by focusing on the right customer problems. Identifying unmet needs is often a matter of where to look. By investigating the hidden parts of the customer journey, and adopting the right research methods and principles, companies can more easily discover the problems worth solving.

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