3 Reasons You Can’t Just Ask Customers What They Want

Editor’s note: David Mierke is a senior user experience researcher at ÄKTA, a digital user experience product design and development consultancy based in downtown Chicago. 

Do you like apples or bananas? Coffee or tea? Pepperoni or cheese pizza? Simple questions result in simple answers which, when researching and developing a product is every product owner’s dream. “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll make it.” Quick. Easy. Simple.

But herein lies the problem; product development isn’t normally quick, easy or simple. Asking these types of questions, as tempting as they are to ask, bring about certain dangers that can result in skewed results, missing information, and, potentially, failed products. Listed below are the three primary reasons why asking customers direct questions can be a very dangerous endeavor.

The Customer Doesn’t Always Know What They Want

The first reason you can’t just ask customers what they want is that they aren’t always attuned to what they really need. Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Typically, it is easier for people to review and comment on something that is placed in front of them rather than asking to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist. This can mean anything from developing a fully functioning prototype to a clickable presentation, or even simple, hand-drawn “screens” to help customers get a sense of the experience.

Additionally, it is also difficult for customers to articulate what it is they want or need, especially if it relates to a topic that is not something they often think about. People have a tendency to use what they know, which is why user adoption for certain products may take longer to catch on than others.

The Human Desire to Develop Patterns and Habits

The second danger in asking customers direct questions is the human desire to develop patterns and habits. Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon “repetition compulsion,” in that humans seek comfort in the familiar as well as a desire to return to an earlier known state of things.

What is even more desirable than returning to an earlier state of things is the desire to maintain certain habits. In the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg spends much of the book describing various examples of products and adjoining habits while using a simple “Cue –> Routine –> Reward” diagram that illustrates the psychology behind how habits are formed and maintained.

These habits are sometimes formed over long periods of time, which makes trying to break or introduce new habits an extremely difficult and delicate process. During our user research phase, we try to avoid asking questions about potentially disrupting a customer’s current habit, instead asking questions that are related.

For example, in attempting to understand how a person organizes a party or trip, we may ask them to tell us how they typically go grocery shopping. This way we can begin to understand from a contextual standpoint, whether they are more strictly organized (have a specific list of items written down and go directly for those specific items) or they are more casual and spontaneous (venturing up and down each aisle and choosing items as they go).

Rather than asking individuals to “imagine a new world” that would alter the current habits of their lives resulting in potential resistance, we are able to gain a better understanding of their natural tendencies, current mentalities and preferences, which results in more rich and insightful information.

Our Overwhelming Need to Please Others

The final risk is people’s overwhelming desire to be a part of something, to be well liked, and the need to please others. While this is a slightly easier peril to overcome than the others, it is still important to understand how this behavior can influence individuals and skew results or information.

Often during interviews, customers will attempt to answer a question the way they think they should answer the question or provide an answer they think is “correct.” One of the primary causes is the asking of what are called “leading questions.” In other words, questions that are asked in such a way that there are only one or two answers that a person can respond with.

Likewise, questions such as, “Do you like coffee or tea?” leaves little room for original thoughts or answers because the question is too rigid and the answers too pre-defined. These types of questions establish a barrier to discovering how people truly feel about a subject, which can be counter-productive and result in unusable information.

Interviews are treated as more of a conversation than a survey or interrogation in order to build a rapport with customers so they feel comfortable enough to share the stories and events of their lives. It is through these stories that we uncover an individual’s thought processes, how they react in various situations, and additional insights that point to how they truly feel about certain products, applications and experiences.

The dangers mentioned in this post are not to say that “this-or-that” questions are completely useless. In certain situations and settings, such as AB usability testing, these types of questions can be quite valuable and informative. It is during discovery research, when you are trying to understand customers’ needs, desires  and pain points regarding a product, that these questions can be detrimental to a project.

So when you’re looking to improve an existing product, develop a new experience or enter a new marketplace, remember there are no quick and simple answers when it comes to understanding what customers want or need.