How to discover what a user needs

If you’d like to ask me questions, @ me on Twitter.

The following question comes from Samantha from the Product School community on Slack:

How do you interact with your actual end users? I believe information as well as emotion always gets diluted when it gets passed on. So if there wasn’t a way for you to actually get on a call with them, what medium would you use to know what your end users actually want?

Hey Samantha, that’s a great question. There’s a quote by Henry Ford that I love:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

You can’t simply ask what people want–you have to discover what they need.

There are two ways to discover user needs:

  1. Customer interviews (requires speaking with users)
  2. Data analysis (don’t need to speak with users)

Let’s dive into each one separately.

Customer interviews

Much has been written about customer development interviews and most recently how to use interviews to discover the jobs to be done for a user. I feel both methods are worth learning more about.

Here are the customer interview questions I use:

1. What goal did you want to accomplish when you started using X? Have you accomplished your goal?

My goal is to discover the pain that the user is trying to solve.

For example, if I ask, “What goal did you want to accomplish when you started using Slack? Have you accomplished your goal?” a user may respond with, “I hate communicating with my team via email. Slack is a better way for my team to communicate in real time. Kind of. Although my team now exclusively communicates on Slack, it’s quite easy to lose track of threads because sometimes there is so much going on.”

Not only have I discovered what pain the user is trying to solve, but I’ve discovered a new pain: there is so much going on in Slack that it’s easy to get lost and lose track of threads.

2. What did you use before X?

My goal here is to discover what the user believes are competitors. This is important because there’s a difference between what a company views as its competitors and what a user views as alternatives to a product.

For example, Headspace (a meditation app), may view Calm (another meditation app) as its main competitor. However, if I ask a user, “What did you use before Headspace?” a user may respond with, “I used to do a lot of yoga before using Headspace” or “I read fiction books before going to sleep to try and relax.”

With this question I can start ideating possible user needs:

  • A specific time and space to practice with a group of people
  • Help with sleeping

This question also helps with pricing a product. If you know that the alternatives to your product is a yoga class, then you can use the price for a yoga membership as an anchor.

3. If X disappeared, what product or service would you use in its place? Why?

Alternative question: if X disappeared, what would you miss the most?

My goal here is to identify what are the use cases that are most valuable to the user.

For example, if I ask, “If Intercom disappeared, what product or service would you use in its place? Why?” a user may answer with, “I would start using another chat service like Olark because I need to be able to chat in real time with my site visitors to build trust.” or “I would use a customer support tool like Zendesk because I need an easy way to handle all of my support tickets.”

I’ve just identified two user needs:

  1. The user needs to build trust with its site visitors so that they buy a product. Live chat is one way to do this, but there are many others ways to build trust.
  2. The user has many support tickets that handling all of them without a software tool would be overwhelming. How can we help the user have less support tickets?

Check out Directly. Instead of building another customer support tool, Directly uses crowdsourcing to solve support tickets.

4. If you had a magic wand, how would you change X?

To be clear, I’m specifically not asking “how would you make it better“. I want to at all times make sure I’m not asking any leading questions–of course a user wants to make things better, but you never know how your questions may lead a user into thinking one way over another.

My goal with this question is to discover what needs the product is not fulfilling for the user.

For example, if I ask, “If you had a magic wand, how would you change Facebook Groups?” a user may respond with, “I would add Gamification so that I can give status and rewards to group members that participate the most. In this way, I can encourage more community and participation.”

5. How would you describe X to a friend?

This last question is probably my favorite. For the marketing team, this question is a great way to understand how to position and message a product so that you communicate the most important value.

For the Product Manager, this question helps identify the use cases that are most valuable to the user.

For example, if I ask, “How would you describe Shazam to a friend?” a user may respond with, “Shazam is a way to instantly get the information from a song whenever you hear it.”

We know that “instantly” is an important keyword, so how can we make Shazam faster?

How can we improve the information that the user receives? Perhaps they want lyrics, upcoming tour dates, or the ability to purchase the song (all of these features are available on the Shazam app I believe).

Data analysis

When you have a site with as many users as Facebook or Instagram, you can rely on data to discover user needs.

For example, if customer support is receiving a ton of tickets about their account being hacked, Instagram may decide to solve this challenge by implementing 2-step authentication.

Or if you have a large sales force, you can rely on sales people to relay information about why they’re losing deals.

For example, if your sales team is consistently losing deals because the product doesn’t have enterprise-level permissions, Gliffy may decide to build a complete administration panel to handle the permission needs of large enterprises.

Or you can rely on analyzing traffic information from analytics tools such as Google Analytics or Mixpanel.

For example, if a significant portion of traffic to your site is coming from browsers that are not set to US-English, then VoiceBunny may decide to localize the site to other languages.


Hope this helps! Let me know what questions you ask during your customer development interviews.

Published by

Jun Loayza

Jun Loayza is the Chief Growth Officer at Bunny Inc. In his startup experience, he has sold 2 technology companies and raised $1M in angel funding. Jun lives in San Francisco, CA with his wife Kim.

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