In a tech-saturated world, customer feedback is everything

I’ve found that the most valuable design tool in the 21st century is rather old-fashioned: customer feedback.

Technology has produced huge breakthroughs in design. A product can be ideated, prototyped and finalized with little more than a keyboard and code. But the ingenuity of modern design often leads to product teams neglecting the basics.

While the best tech entrepreneurs anticipate trends before they occur and deliver cutting-edge products, it’s impossible to be so prescient without hearing from real users. That’s why, to stay competitive, more and more tech companies are adopting a customer-centric model of design.

The customer-focused design model

I believe the best design solutions come out of the best human instinct: empathy.

When your design team is huddled around a computer for months on end, it’s easy for designers to lose critical perspective and human connection with the customer. Dry research reports on customer insights fail to capture the true human experience of a product — and design teams often ignore customer feedback when they do not directly mediate user relationships themselves.

Customers generally hate change in beloved products — recall the anger every time Facebook is updated? But if you include your base in the redesign process from the get-go, it mitigates the risk of launching a brand-new product that is universally hated — or worse, a product that is unintuitive or impossible to use.

The ingenuity of modern design often leads to product teams neglecting the basics.

By emphasizing customer value during the design process, you also can iterate and experiment with several designs to create the strongest version of a product. A customer-centric process should be multi-stepped and engage with the customer in a number of ways:

  • Develop a problem statement: Every product design — or redesign — should start with customer research, generally in the form of interviews to understand customer needs and gather insights that inform a “problem statement” — a series of issues that must be addressed in the design process.
  • Form a hypothesis: Teams should engage in a charrette: a meeting of stakeholders to generate as many ideas as possible to form a hypothesis that can be rapidly tested with customers — preferably within a week.
  • Rinse and repeat: Redesign, test and then rapidly update the product to match customer feedback. Test a new hypothesis and move on to a different problem statement once your hypothesis is validated.

Large and small companies alike have already started adopting this model. Airbnb, for example, famously grew their user base by 200 percent after simply spending one afternoon with early adopter hosts. Stanford Business School even introduced a session this fall for executives centered on mining customer insights, developing rapid experiments and fostering an internal culture that encourages this type of innovation.

Meeting with early adopters and loyal users occasionally is invaluable, but customer engagement can, and should, go further. It’s important to note that customer feedback shouldn’t be limited to asking them what they think — in some cases, customers don’t even know what they want until you show them. Technology has enabled designers to use quantitative as well as qualitative feedback — including metrics like how long customers spend in a program or what they click and don’t click.

Research reports on customer insights fail to capture the true human experience of a product.

Executives and product teams shouldn’t wait until a product breaks to hear from their customers. My team, for example, recently executed a high-stakes redesign and overhaul of our central product. While we always strive to incorporate customer feedback and interaction into our day-to-day work, we worked with around 16,000 customers to receive feedback on different versions of our new product. Our entire process was oriented around continuous customer feedback — and it transformed the way we do business. We now collaborate with 11,000 customers who give us a constant look at how our product helps them solve the challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.

Customer-centric design requires an internal shift

Becoming a customer-centric organization often requires a significant shift in internal bureaucracy. Design teams must learn to become a group of ethnographers, learning to spot the unmet needs of customers and adapting to meet their concerns.

No matter the size or industry of a company, orienting around customers-first can be a humbling experience that challenges core assumptions about a product. Organizations can often become stuck in a certain mode of business-as-usual, and inadvertently fail to create a culture conducive to innovation. By deeply engaging with customers, organizations can make evidence-based design choices and avoid what’s known as “design debt” — the accumulation of arbitrary decisions that prevent a team from effectively improving their product.

And orienting around the customer has a hidden benefit: It creates a stronger internal culture. Allowing employees to be autonomous, test their assumptions and think creatively creates growth and learning opportunities within a company. The tech industry grapples with high employee turnover, particularly among millennials and programmers. But by engaging directly with users, designers feel the real-world impact and importance of their work, and will be encouraged to test the status quo and make decisions that benefit the customer over the short-term bottom line. In short, engaging customers makes work more fun.

So in that spirit, more companies ought to double down on their most important investment — their customers — by involving them in their design decisions.