Remember the first time you let your teenager drive? For those of you without teenagers, I am sure you can imagine your scrunched-up face as you tried not to scream, “Not so close to the curb!”, the pounding of your foot against an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger’s side, your clammy hands sliding around the door handle as you cling for dear life shouting commands like a staff sergeant. This is what product teams often feel like when they first let their customers into their product development process. The customer is veering to the edge, and product teams want to bring them back to the center of the road. The customer is going faster than expected; the product team shows them how to apply the brake. The customer is driving on the left side of the road, they are backing into the parking space, and they are using hand signals instead of blinkers. Your customers are doing everything wrong! Good thing the product team (or sales rep if it has gotten that far) is happy to show them how they SHOULD use their product.
Letting your customers drive is scary, but watching what they do as they’re driving is gold. While product development starts in captivity with an idea, some research, and a gap in the market, it quickly needs to move to its natural environment to see how it reacts in the wild. Traditionally, product teams were like researcher assistants in a lab; they read the documents provided by the company (market research), built the product (the maze) and defined the outcome (get some food). They ran a bunch of their rats through the test, and eventually most of the rats hit the lever and everyone claimed victory. They received their final rounds of funding and unveiled their masterpiece knowing victory was theirs! Of course, victory was usually fleeting as customers seldom react the same way in the wild as they do in a lab.
Today’s product teams can take a different pathway to building and testing their products, making them more like anthropologists than researchers. They still need to do the research—but they need to read more than just company-prepared market research and spend time actively embedding themselves in the communities who will test and eventually use the product. They still need to build an MVP (or maybe just be wireframes) but instead of testing it in sterile lab conditions where teams look for positive evidence of previously defined outcomes, they should drop it into the jungle. Channel Dian Fossey. See what animals are attracted to it. See what they pick up. See what they ignore. Watch for shared experiences. Watch for shared disappointments. And here is where we have a distinct advantage over Ms. Fossey: We can actually ask our customers “Why?” Why did you look at that first? Why didn’t you look at this? How come? Tell me more….
As scary as the first drive with you teenager is, it will never be as scary as spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a product that your customers leave sitting in the jungle, alone.