Shut up, and Show Me Something

I admit it. Quite often on this blog I give you long lists of fairly hard things to do. I ask you to change your whole approach to design or product management or customer interviewing or analyzing data. But not today. Today, I share with you one simple thing that is easy to remember and will transform your entire approach to customer research.

Ok, maybe it's not quite that cool, but it really will help you communicate with your customers better. Are you ready? Here it is:

Never have a conversation with a user (or potential user) where you don't show them something.

That seems simple enough, right? But why on earth should you do it, and what could you possibly show them?

Reasons for Communicating with Customers

Let's back up for just a moment. The main reasons that people generally talk with a user are:
  • To get information from them - what they like, what they don't like, what's confusing, why they're not buying things, etc.
  • To give them information - here are the features of the product, here's how to fix your problem, we swear it's a feature and not a bug, etc.
  • To sell them something - whatever it is that sales people do...besides drinking heavily
All of these things are much easier to do when you're looking at visual aids.

Getting Information from Users

Let's perform a thought experience. Without thinking about it, name three things you hate about doing your taxes. Were you able to do it? Of course you were. If you can't think of three things you hate about doing your taxes, either you're not paying attention, or your hiding all of your money in an offshore account in the Caymans. But are they really the three worst things?

Probably not. They're just the three things that you happen to think about when put on the spot. Next tax season, you'll be doing your taxes and think to yourself, "Oh right, THAT thing! I hate that thing! I wish I'd thought of that when I was asked for three things I hate." And you most likely would have thought of it if you'd been going through your tax preparation software when I asked.

Sure, you can just ask users what they like and dislike about your product, but you will get much better information if you're both looking at the product together. Even better, ask them to perform some tasks or just use the product while you watch. This not only jogs the user's memory about all the little annoying things that they're sort of used to, but you can also observe all the things that they don't even notice or are too embarrassed to mention they're having trouble with.

Giving Information to Users

Think about getting slightly complicated directions from somebody verbally. Now imagine that they're showing you the route on a map while they talk to you. Which do you remember best? What about if you have a gps screen showing you turn by turn directions in the moment? Even better? You bet.

Looking at things together helps your customer understand the information you're delivering much better than just talking.

Selling Users Something

I'm not a sales person, so I'm not going to spend any time on this one, but I'm a hell of a lot more likely to buy something that I have actually seen in action (and liked) than something that has been extensively described to me. If anybody has any examples, pro or con, of how showing people a product impacts sales, share them in the comments.

But What Should I Show Them?

Good question. You should show them whatever it is you want to get feedback on, give information about, or sell. The last two are pretty self-explanatory, but the first one can be tricky. Let's look at it more closely.
If you have a product and want to know what people think about it and how they're using it, look at the product with the user. Easy enough.

If you have an idea for a product, and you want to get feedback on it, show sketches or interactive wireframes. The closer to a real product it looks, the better the feedback will be, but there are probably times when you just want to show a bunch of quick sketches or a few different visual designs in order to get quick impressions.

But what if all you have is a vague idea of a problem you want to solve? You're not even at the sketch or wireframe stage yet, but you know that you want to solve some problems for a particular group of people. What do you show them then? Easy, does the user have some other method or product that they're using to solve the problem currently? Watch them use that! Are they not currently solving the problem at all? Have them show you how far along they got in solving the problem before they eventually gave up.

Here's an example. A client of mine once wanted to create a solution for people who sell things online. Now, there are two potential markets for this:
  1. People who are currently selling things online through other services
  2. People who want to sell things online but don't, for some reason
For the first market, we needed to watch people selling things online the way they currently do, in order to figure out what their problems and pain points were. For the second market, we needed to watch the way people sold things offline and then watch them try to use competitors to understand what was keeping them offline.

Could we have just asked people those questions? Sure, but we wouldn't have gotten information that was nearly as detailed or complete. In every observation, there were times when the user would get to some point in the process and say something like, "Oh, right. That thing there. That drives me nuts." There was also a point where we noticed that the customer was jumping through crazy hoops to complete a task, but they were so used to it working badly that they didn't even imagine that it could possibly work better. Later, when we showed them our possible solutions to problems they didn't even know existed, they were thrilled.

But Laura, Why Don't You Ever Include Visual Aids In Your Posts?

I was hoping you wouldn't notice that, frankly.

Know of a case when you wouldn't want to show somebody something? Argue with me about it in the comments!

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