On Customer Centric Design

Learn why Third Reef believes that customers are the best source of requirements.

“Long ago, I built an iOS app for an out of date version of the iPhone. This was deemed necessary because one of the project's financial stakeholders used an old phone and was resistant to upgrade. Despite knowing that newer versions of iOS would not need the older code we were writing, and that the percentage of users still on an older device was small and shrinking, the project pressed on. About a week after launch, the stakeholder whose phone had prompted targeted the older system upgraded to a brand new device, effectively making that work a waste of time and money.”
— Alex Westholm, Managing Partner @ Third Reef

This kind of disconnect between project vision and user needs is common, and often spreads widely throughout a project in the form of needless features. Many technology project veterans will be familiar with similar systems that follow a variation of the Pareto principle applied to its feature set: 20% of the functionality meets 80% of customers' needs, with large chunks of the remaining functionality going unused. Such bloated feature sets affect more than just dwindling budgets: they increase the potential for security problems, particularly when code is left unmaintained; they make it harder to change existing code by acting as technical debt; and, most critical to project success, they harm the experience of interacting with your project's deliverable by adding needless complexity or solving the wrong problem.

Yet many teams believe they bring to the table a complete picture of what their customers' and potential customers' needs are, along with ideas on how to satisfy them. Upon questioning, these beliefs are often premised on ideas or anecdotal evidence, rather than hard data. Rarely is this "understanding" accurate or deep enough to provide the necessary inputs to decision making to optimize the customer experience. Instead, it can lead to building upon faulty assumptions and outcomes that don't meet anyone's expectations.

Customers to the rescue

Instead, a better source of truth is the observable behavior of the customer segments you're aiming to address. How do they solve this problem now? How do they feel about the steps involved in doing so? What would they change? Asking these questions often requires fortitude; this may highlight flaws in an existing product that stakeholders believe is working well, or prove that an idea doesn’t provide enough benefit for users to adopt it. However, if there are faulty assumptions in your basic understanding of your value proposition, it's important to tackle this as soon as possible to adjust your approach to better meet customer needs.

By making customers a focal point in your decision making from the outset, you can not only avoid the problems above, but remain confident throughout the lifecycle of your project that you are keeping pace with customer wants. Viewing customers through the objective lens of user research helps keep project focus on actual needs, keeping assumptions far away from your decision making. The result is improved ability to adapt, experiment and innovate by validating ideas as early as possible, with the people who determine their success upon launch.

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