The most critical phase of a product or business life cycle is the period of transition from idea to building it out. This article covers a process for answering the most important question of this phase. “Who is this for?”
A successful business has three principle preconditions:
- A product or service that relieves a significant pain point
- A (burgeoning) market of sufficient size and quality
- A method of reaching that market to attain profitable user/revenue growth
A comprehensive understanding of the people who would be using your product is needed for all of the above. The more ground-breaking your idea, the more important (and difficult) this is. How do you discover your (future) customer base?
Reverse Engineering the Customer (4x4x4)
We often sort people based on demographics (gender, race, age, etc.). While these attributes are not unimportant, they generally are not what matters most when building a solution for them. In order to understand how to solve their problems and reach them in a meaningful way, you need to know what they currently do, how they do it, and most importantly why! The closer you get to the ‘why’ the more likely you truly understand the ‘who’. Everything else can be extrapolated from there.
Before doing anything else, you need to develop some hypotheses about your users and their pain points (E.g., “Single mothers don’t have time to go shopping during the week” or “Liberal arts graduates are uninformed about student loan repayment”). Make as many hypotheses as possible. Also, be sure they are tied to your product or business somehow. If you find yourself straying, either get back to the product, or consider why you began to stray–you may be trying to tell yourself something…
Based on your hypotheses, create a specific target audience, aiming for 4 descriptive traits (to limit ambiguity). Your initial user definition might be primarily demographic attributes. While you don’t want to end with that, it’s absolutely fine to start. Below are some examples of early customer definitions:
- Middle-class suburban single mothers
- Male recent college graduates with liberal arts degrees
- Upper-class Christian singles in their 30s
Perform 4 customer interviews (or a similarly intensive method) with people who fit your customer profile. Remember that you are looking for data that either confirms or denies your hypotheses. Ideally you are gathering information that will help you determine future hypotheses in the event that your current hypotheses are proven incorrect, as well.
Analyze the results and compare them with your hypotheses. Wherever there isn’t alignment, create new hypotheses and redefine your customer profile. Try not to change more than two traits at a time, unless the data clearly indicate that that is the proper action. This is meant to be a methodical process, and if you change everything at once your understanding of the customer could get messy quickly.
Iterate this process of hypothesis generation, customer bullseye definition, and data gathering until you complete 4 full rounds without substantively altering your customer definition. It is at this point that you have your customer bullseye.
Why the Bullseye Is Important
Your customer bullseye gives you a validated target for all of your early product, business, and marketing decisions. If you’re off the mark a little, or you later find another group that needs to be added, that is fine. What is most imperative is to have that first target. It is far better to misplace the bullseye by an inch than to be playing guessing games about with cardinal direction to face.
As you learn more about your prospective users, you will likely transition from simple demographic attributes, to psychographics, and eventually to more wordy (but precise) descriptors. This means you are moving from who/what to why. For example, after some research “Middle-class suburban single mothers” could become “Busy Type-A suburban mothers” as you realize the class and marital status matter less than the fact that they are busy and have a certain personality type.
By the end of the process you are likely to end with something like “Child caretakers who value efficiency and controlling their environment, and live a significant distance to the nearest shopping center.” Each piece of this customer bullseye is a descriptive why phrase. Although it’s wordy, the value lies in the precision.
The customer bullseye is not meant to be a persona. A persona is an exemplar of a market segment. In this example, the previous customer bullseye definition of “Busy Type-A suburban mother” might be a decent start for a persona (but be sure to reference the customer bullseye traits).
A Symbiotic Relationship
When carrying out your customer discovery, you are likely to not only be adjusting your customer bullseye, but also your product or business model. Understanding when to adjust one instead of the other is one aspect of the process that is definitely more of an art than a science.
Running in Circles?
If you are consistently arriving at more questions than answers, don’t worry. Keep making rational adjustments based on your results. If you don’t know what adjustment you could make but know that you’re nowhere near the true customer bullseye, do one more round with the same group traits. If after that round you are still unsure about next steps, then it is time to circle the wagons and re-examine your core assumptions. If you’re doing this, it’s still not time to panic. Sometimes the greatest discoveries occur at times like these, because they really aren’t that obvious at first!