The Lean Product Process: #1 Understanding Your Customers

The Lean Product Process: #1 Understanding Your Customers

In my college years I frequently asked myself: why do we need to study so much theory. Why isn't there more practical learning? Although I still maintain my opinion, that the ratio of theoretical vs. practical learning is disproportionate, I came to realise that you just can't practice without strong theoretical grounds.

In my previous article, I laid out the theory. We learned about the build-measure-learn loop, validation and the different stages of product development. The good news is that, from here on we're going to get more hands-on.

In the next couple of articles, I'm going to take a closer look at the different stages of product development and demonstrate the build-measure-learn loop and available tools for each one. Let's jump in straight away, and start with the problem validation phase.

Validation in product development - Problem validation

The vision

It all starts with a vision. A product, which is going to solve one or more problems, for one or more target groups. For the purpose of illustration, let's make up our own product: a gadget that makes travelling safer for users of micromobility vehicles, both motorized and non-motorized.

A product, which can be attached to a bike, electric scooter or even a Segway and gives us audible and tactile (through vibration) alerts if it senses an obstacle (pedestrian, crossing, vehicle, etc.) thanks to its hundreds of sensors. Now, I don't know if such a product already exists or not. I also don't know if building such a product is feasible at this point in time. But for the sake of this exercise, let's assume that it doesn't exist and all the technical prerequisites are given.

For the product to be successful, several hypotheses must prove to be true. Let's break up our vision into the following hypotheses:

  • each (motorized and non-motorized) micromobility user faces this (safety) problem
  • users of micromobility vehicles do not feel safe when travelling and would like to be able to travel in a safer way
  • users of micromobility vehicles are not happy with the current safety solutions
  • our product helps user be safer when travelling
  • our product improves the sense of safety of users in such a way, that would incentivise them to use the gadget regularly
  • our product is easy to use
  • our users trust the product
  • users are still willing to pay or exchange value for our product or service
  • we are able to keep our existing users, maybe even sell the additional products or services
  • our users like the product enough to recommend it to others

Those of you who are experienced in lean product development, have probably already noticed that some of these hypotheses are a bit lamish. That's on purpose. I tried to formulate our assumptions in a way that a product development team who are at their first rodeo would do. My goal is to show a path to a successful product, but also show you ways to treat the inevitable bumps and obstacles on that path. We'll reformulate these assumptions later on.

In the Learn phase (of our build-measure-learn loop) of the first stage of product development, the problem validation stage, we're going to concentrate on the first three of the above assumptions. These are what we call problem hypotheses.

An outside-in approach

Many start-ups commit their first capital mistake at this stage by not spending (enough) time to learn more about the problem hypothesis. These teams use an inside-out approach in which the vision stems from an internal requirement, and they decide to build a product based on the opinion of one or more team members, maybe a couple of close friends.

This is entirely obverse to the principles of lean product development, because at this point in time we cannot know anything about who else has this problem or this problem is meaningful enough to address.

An outside-in approach on the other hand dictates that before we start planning and building anything, we should first talk to our potential customers. Steve Blank, the author of The Four Steps to Epiphany once famously said that "no plan survives first contact with customers". Blank urges his readers to "get out of the building" and start talking to potential customers about the problems (not the solution!) which we wish to solve. Let's see how we can do that in practice.

Knowing your target customers

Ok. We're standing outside our office building in the warm summer sunshine. We have an assumption that other people wish to have a solution to the problem we have identified. We would like to talk to people about this. But with whom? The elderly gentlemen playing chess in the shade? The skater girl whose head is covered by gigantic headphones? Or the businessman reading today's newspaper?

We might feel, sensibly so, that not all of them are going to be affected in the same way by the problem and, because of their social background and general circumstances, they're going to have very different opinions of the problem. The opinion of chess playing gentlemen might not be as relevant to us, as that of the skater girl, because they're not directly influenced by the problem. But we can be certain that they are going to have a point of view. And if we listen to them, they might easily throw us off track.

The businessman reading the newspaper might be a potential customer. It is easily conceivable that he travels to work by bike or an electric scooter. But we cannot be certain of this. We might get useful information from the discussion, but it's more likely that we're going to hit a dead end. Our time is valuable, so it's worth investing in discussions that are more likely to lead to useful insights.

As you can see, it's really important to precisely define whose opinions are we interested in, before we start talking to people. Whose problems do we want to learn more about? The best tool for this job, are the user personas.


Creating personas is something you might have already seen in other fields, such as UX design (user personas) or marketing (buyer personas). These fields use personas at a later, planning phase. In product development, they proved to be a useful tool in testing our assumptions about our target market, in a much earlier stage.

I'll detail personas in a later article. For now, let's take a look at what a persona has to contain:

  • Name
  • Representative photo
  • Short bio
  • Job title
  • User segmentation (demographics, psychographics, behavioral, needs-based, etc)
  • (Assumed) problems and/or pain-points
  • (Assumed) goals/needs
  • (Assumed) fears
  • Context (where can he/she face this problem, where will he/she use the product)

It's important for me to mention at this point that before talking to potential customers, we cannot be sure how a persona should look. At this stage, we're only assuming who they might be. It could happen that we initially targeted a specific customer group, but as we progress with the development of our product, we realize that we engaged a completely different type of customer. The change and evolution of personas is not only to be expected, but even likely in lean product development. So feel free to adapt your personas along the way.

In our case, an example of a persona might look like the following:

Click to enlarge

Further personas might be commuters who use an electric scooter to get to work, or cyclists who go out to ride on B-roads during the weekend.

Another aspect I'd like to mention here, is that users and customers are not always the same. In our case, a potential customer could be a worried mother (or father), who becomes a customer because of their concern for the safety of their child. The user in this case, would still be the child.

A different customer might be the CTO or lead engineer of a manufacturing company that makes micromobility vehicles, and would like to include our gadget in their own product. Their needs are going to be different from those of the users. In such cases, it might be worthwhile to create customer personas in addition to the user personas.

By drafting our vision and building our personas, we have already taken the most important steps in our Build phase of the build-measure-learn loop.

Understanding your customers

Now that we have defined what our assumptions are and who our customers might be, we have arrived at the last phase of our build-measure-learn loop: the Measure phase.

Don't get thrown off by the name! Although the Learn stage is last by name, we have already seen that the whole learning cycle started with defining our hypothesis, meaning we have defined what we actually want to learn. After the Measure phase, the only thing left for us to do is to draw the necessary conclusions.

As I already mentioned, the most useful and most effective tool in the Measure phase is customer interviews.

Customer interviews

There are two kinds of people. Those, for whom interviewing is second-nature, and those who are apprehensive about it. Being anxious is natural. Interviewing is not easy. I myself have been reluctant to interview others. I'd much rather do "book research", like reading forums and blogs to try to gauge other's opinions on a subject.

Dan Olsen, in his book titled The Lean Product Playbook discusses customer interviews at length. For me, it was his book that gave me the final push to start talking about my product ideas with others as well. I still don't consider myself a good interviewer. But the very first talks already showed me that even these not so perfect 1-on-1 interviews are much more efficient than what I tried before.

I encourage everyone to cast their fears aside and approach the skater girl for an interview. Be prepared with an interview script. You don't have to swear by it and stick to every letter. Instead, treat it like a loose guideline that helps you keep your assumptions center stage at any time and to make sure you get your answers.

Don't pitch! The goal of the interview is to collect information and to gather feedback from the interviewee. It's goal is not to pitch our (non-existent) product to them. In fact, pitching our idea will derail the interview. Interviewees will most likely give us corroborating answers out of sympathy, even if they don't fully coincide with reality. Make sure you set the context for the discussion, but allow the interviewee to talk.

Be empathetic and listen to what the other person says. Every answer is a new opportunity to learn something new. These would be the most important elements of an interview to consider, but as I already mentioned, interviewing is an intricate subject, which I'll discuss in a later post.

During the interview, we might find out from the skater girl that although she would gladly use a gadget that would make her travelling more safe, it's just not as important to her. Even the helmet and knee pads, she merely wears because of her parents.

This information is something we can already learn from. Is the skater girl going to be our primary customer? Or should we rather focus on her parents? This is something that we should touch upon in later interviews. If a pattern emerges, we should create a separate customer (buyer) persona – the worrisome parent persona – who can interview separately. This would already be a type of a pivot, but more on pivots later.

Field observations

In some cases, conducting field observations might prove to be worthwhile, especially with products that depend on how the customers behave, or with products which we expect to change user behaviour.

With our product, it might be useful to pick a spot in a coffee shop near a busy intersection and observe passers by. How many scooters decrease their speed before the intersection? How many cyclists dismount before a pedestrian crossing? Do vehicles turning to their right check for cyclists or scooters in their blind spots? Do skaters travel on the road or on the sidewalk?

We might also gain valuable information if we try travelling with micromobility vehicles ourselves. Did we feel safe? What were the situations when we felt unsafe? Try travelling around downtown, but also in the suburbs, where the infrastructure is less developed.

We have to assess if we gain enough knowledge through field observations to make it worth the time invested? Or should we instead invest that time in more interviews. One thing that's for certain is that field observations cannot replace interviews. But they can however prepare us for an interview, so we can come up with better questions.

Customer journey map

Customer journey maps can also prove to be useful tools in this stage of product development. A customer journey map is a collaborative tool, that illustrates the journey (experience) of a user or persona through an actual narrative. They help us better understand the behaviour and challenges of our personas.

We should start by delimiting our starting and end points. How does the journey begin? How does it end and how does it lead into the next journey?

We should continue by setting our scenes. This is the context, physical or logical, where the interaction will happen. In case of an ecommerce website for example, it could be the website itself, the mobile app, the call center or the brick and mortar shop. In our case (since there is no product yet) we can use scenes like the city street, a public square or the skate park.

Finally, we will define the user actions (what the persona does), their reactions (what perceivable change happens as a result) and the next steps (what options or challenges does the persona face now).

The customer journey map can represent an actual journey, or an envisioned (coveted) journey. The latter will be more useful in the problem-solution fit stage of product development.

In my experience, a customer journey map works best, when it is co-created with potential customers. It gives us an outstanding opportunity to gauge their reactions at certain points in the journey. We can even illustrate these emotions on an emotion-diagram, where peaks mark positive reactions, while valleys mark negative reactions.

A customer journey map we created together with a client.
A customer journey map we created together with a client.

Final steps

Now that we've seen a selection of tools to determine the validity of a problem, our final step will be to cycle back to the Learn phase of the learning loop. What do the field observations and interviews tell us? What do the customer journey maps show us? Did we find answers to our assumptions?

Here's a reminder of the 3 assumptions we're looking to find answers for:

  • each (motorized and non-motorized) micromobility user faces this (safety) problem
  • users of micromobility vehicles do not feel safe when travelling and would like to be able to travel in a safer way
  • users of micromobility vehicles are not happy with the current safety solutions

If we manage to verify the validity of each assumption, we can progress to the next stage of product development. This will however, rarely be the case. When one or more of our assumptions prove invalid, we should pivot. During a pivot, we adjust our assumptions based on our learnings so far, and start the build-measure-learn loop again.

In our case, there's a high chance that not even the first assumption will survive the scrutiny of validation. How we should pivot though, is something I will reflect upon later. For now, let's focus on how to validate our solution.