Industry point of view - understanding your customer: give the people what they want! - Central Research Laboratory Skip to main content

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Alex Peet, Product Development Lead at CRL

Understanding what your customer wants is the most important bit of information you’ll ever get. This is the version I recommend to new companies who want to create products that resonate with their customers. During my time working for Dyson, the design process relied heavily on a functional specification. This is a list of things the product must do, which can be measured and tested on the assembly line. This is important, but before we get into that, you have to start with the customer.

Your Customer has a Problem: Jackpot!

It’s a fairly easy mantra to recite over and over: your product has to solve a problem, but I have to disagree with this all or nothing approach. Solving a genuine need is important, being better than the competition is too. The best product designers know their customers inside out. There are other ways to achieve this. If a product already exists, you can be successful by making it easier to use, a la iPod approach. The other approach is to create something completely new.


“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs


If you aren’t familiar with focus groups, their essentially an opportunity to bring together people from your target market, show them the product concept and receive feedback. Jobs was able to understand the best solution for the user, even if they didn’t know it yet. Now we aren’t all mini Steve Jobs in the making, but we can learn from Apple’s approach.

Regardless of whether you want to use focus groups or not, you have to understand your customer. Marketing can sometimes be overlooked and considered just another form of advertising, but in its truest sense, marketing is understanding what your customers value, and delivering on that. Everything from how they purchase the product, to understanding what features are necessary and what features can be avoided.

The reason why the MVP approach is so powerful is that it forces you to show your idea to potential customers, and from that moment, you start understanding what resonates and what misses the mark. Incidentally, the invention of Hip-Hop can be traced back to when DJ Kool Hurk played his trademark tune: ‘The Incredible Bongo Band’s’ remix of the song “Apache”. He found that people went nuts at the breakdown part. So he started thinking how he could extend it, eventually leading to the invention of beat juggling, skipping from record to record, just at the breakdown. If he hadn’t understood what his customer’s wanted, maybe Kanye would have been an architect after all.

The other, quicker method is just through good old fashioned research. If you’re thinking of solving problems with breastfeeding, then there’s a huge community online that talk about common issues and the current solutions out there. Searching for “forum: problems breastfeeding” could give you big insights into how people are currently dealing with the problems.

But probably the most powerful method is to immerse yourself into the place you want to start a business. Will Shu, the founder of Deliveroo, spent years delivering food to truly understand the processes, problems and intricacies of the takeaway delivery industry. By starting interacting closely with the people you eventually want to make customers, you start to understand their incentives, their spending patterns and ultimately, how you can create a business you know they’ll want to use. Personally, the reason why I loved the Deliveroo model (before I found out how badly they treat their workers, i.e. fighting paying them minimum wage) was the big problem everyone overlooked: that small restaurant owners can’t afford to pay delivery drivers full time if they aren’t getting enough orders to sustain it. By spreading out delivery drivers across lots of restaurants, you’re able to meet that demand. It’s hard to say whether this was discovered during the testing phase of the business, or its initial inspiration, but I can bet that the business’ overall approach to speed and efficiency was built from Shu’s deep understanding of the industry and his customers.

It’s very easy to become convinced that your product will sell, and be afraid that by showing the product idea too early, just won’t capture how good it could be. There’s nothing stopping you continuously developing your idea until you think it’s perfect, but without feedback, you might just overlook an aspect of your product that could make all the difference between a one hit wonder, and the start of building a profitable, sustainable business.

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