Building for the "Average" Customer

99% Invisible (a great podcast for those interested in Design) recently ran a segment on “averages.”  The show’s content ran the gamut from the origins of “the average” (pioneered by a Belgian mathematician and astronomer named Adolphe Quetelet in the 1860’s) to war efforts where averages were used to mass produce military uniforms to how averages killed several WWII pilots.  Spoiler alert:  The average person doesn’t exist.

Neither does the average customer. And yet we still mostly know our customers through surveys, competitive data, market research studies—and lots of lore.  In other words, we know and we study the “average” customer.  To gain ground in a changing market, today’s product developers and marketing professionals need to look past the “average”--especially in transforming markets. Most ed tech products today require that your customer makes a change to his behavior to get the best results from your product. They also usually require an ability to work with other products to form the entire customer experience.  Averages can’t tell you when, where, or why a customer will change her behavior or how the intersection of multiple products will affect the customer experience—but insight will.

Insight starts with a commitment to talk and listen to, really listen to, actual customers.  It sounds so easy, but over and over again I meet UX teams, product developers, and marketers who have never, ever done that.  These smart and dedicated folks spend 100% of their time focused internally—creating spreadsheets, deciding feature sets, building messaging, and crafting strategic plans.  They study their internal data and build the needs of the “average customer” into every piece of their planning.  And then they wonder why their customers are not responding.

Talking to customers can be a bit intimidating.  They might tell you things you don’t want to hear.  They might expose weaknesses and drawbacks that you can’t readily address. Some might even be a bit crazy.  But having those conversations, listening for themes, hearing insights past carefully crafted messages is where you will find the authentic answers.  So give it a try.  Here are three Dos and one DON’T to guide your conversation.

Do listen.  Yes. Everyone knows how to listen.  But active listening takes skills, and skills take practice.   A simple skill is to always have your customer tell you something twice.  Context is everything, and if you and your customer are not using the same language, your understanding of your customer will be off.  Even if you KNOW what they mean, ask again.  Terms like “blended,” “lab time,” “mastery,” “adaptive,” “flexible” “affordable” all mean different things to different people.  Miss the context, miss the opportunity.

Do have go-to questions.  My go-to questions: “Tell me some more about that.”  “Can you give me an example?” “How is it supposed to work?” “When was the last time that happened?” “What did you have to do next?” ”Do you think your colleagues are having the same experience?”  These will ensure you understand the problem and the context before moving onto another topic.  If not, you could spend a lot of time fixing things that were never broken or building out features that no one will use.  

Do let your customer roam. When testing/piloting your product, stay away from over-scripted walkthroughs, multiple onboarding webinars, and locked down lesson plans.    Watch to see how your product looks in the wild before trying to tame it.  Focus on understanding why your customers are making the choices they are.  Once you see how your product performs without bias, start suggesting activities to help the customer meet their personal goals with your product.  See which are meaningful.  See which aren’t.   This will give your customers an authentic experience—using your product to deliver their desired outcomes—and you an authentic understanding of your customer.   Oh, and your product team gets some real feedback. 

Don’t put words in their mouth.  If you really want to know how and why and when a customer will use your product, don’t feed them your message. See what message they feed you.  Agreeing a tool would be “useful” is miles away from “I will change my behavior and do something I have not done before, no matter how little time I have or how this priority fits into my whole life.”  Only your customers decide the value of your product.  

Design and market products for the “average” customer, and you design and market for no one.  Design and market using customer insight, and you build the desired experience—not just the desired features-- into your product from the beginning.  And marketing is much more fun after that!