09/09/2013 01:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2013

Don't Ask Your Customers - They Have No Idea What They Want

By Mike Mates, Brand Director at UP

Focus groups, surveys, user research studies, social media, consumer interviews - there's a lot of tools at the disposal of startups to build products under the banner of customer validation. However, too many brands make the mistake of assuming that customers actually know what they want. In Gerald Zaltman's book, How Customers Think, we learn that nearly 80% of all new products and services fail within six months of launch (or fall significantly short of projections). This is due to no lack of customer research; however, too many of these efforts ask users to consciously articulate what they want and fail to actually get to the core of what they need.

If you put anyone in the critic's seat, you'll seldom find a shortage of opinions, suggestions, or pleas for features - an approach that completely alienates the manner in which humans experience a brand or product in its contextually relevant setting. Cognitive science tells us that the majority of experiences shaping our critical lens, take place in the subconscious mind. We experience things naturally, in a complex, organic setting with many contextual variables that influence our perception.

So, why are our customer validation techniques still relying on the conscious elicitation of criticism, which in most cases take place in a context-deprived vacuum? Largely because it's much easier, often self-fulfilling in the short-term, and seemingly more obtainable to simply ask what someone wants, rather than rooting around in their subconscious mind to find it.

This may sound daunting and somewhat intangible, but it doesn't have to be (nor does it require a dedicated team of research scientists). The key to good, quality customer validation starts with an understanding of who your audience is, their background, cognitive biases, and the context in which your product or service fits in their lives. You must be able to take cues from the historical influences that shape their view of the world and create alignment in a way that's meaningful with your brand.

In 2011, I had the pleasure to work with a startup (now one of the foremost leaders) specializing in the distribution and stewardship of internship programs. The founders recognized a significant disparity in the availability of quality internships (and interns), which set them on their course to become the market leader in this emerging space.

The initial customer development done prior to my firm's involvement was fairly typical. They received feedback largely focused on a desire for more internships and improved outcomes in successful placement. What we observed in their first website and brand was a de facto job search site, with everything centered around the volume of listings and varieties of industries serviced (presented in a daunting list style format). Their initial results had flatlined, despite positive audience feedback testing and fulfilling the ask of their initial customer interviews.

After spending some time defining the audience personas and building detailed user stories, we set out to understand the lives that college students live, and how product adoptions occur to them naturally. We completely avoided discussing our client's product, and instead aimed to gain a good understand of daily activity, past experience, how they used technology, and the perceived challenges faced in their academic lives and professional future.

What we discovered through this less formal approach to customer research was a good deal of daily stress, a tiring assault of sterile academic information, and a massive need for cultural fit within peer groups and career path affiliations. This led to a breakthrough brand and product strategy that was focused on creating a highly stylized aesthetic and tone that differentiated heavily from typical job sites or academic resources, that reduced noise while improving relevancy for a more focused experience, and by creating a window into the culture of companies seeking interns on the site (which evolved over time into a centerpiece offering and revenue stream for bigger brands, by way of paid customized recruiting presences permanently embedded in their site).

While this article admittedly may not cover the full spectrum of more meaningful customer research, it does start a very important conversation. Understanding your audience outside the vacuum of your product and finding subconscious links from which to build empathy is of critical importance. Avoid asking, commit yourself to understanding, and learn how to master the art of context and cognition.