Growth comes easier when you're customer obsessed

• 10 min read

The pandemic has created huge opportunities for growth. To unlock that value obsess about the customer and the struggles they face in their new normal.

Growth comes easier when you're customer obsessed

Growth is hard at the best of times. In a recession and during a pandemic it can feel even harder. Yet, the last 9 months have had a profound impact on everyone's lives. This opens up huge opportunities for growth and theoretically should make it easier if you know where to look. Even high growth sectors still have a lot of change, disruption and growth ahead of them. For example, Zoom is the poster child for the best in class video conferencing tool, but it wasn't designed for a fully remote workforce. There are loads of pain points using video conferencing software (not just Zoom). Struggles like fatigue, the lack of social spaces, the distractions, the background noises, the lack of privacy, etc.

If we're entering a new normal then we'll need products and services to adapt to this. We're starting to see some big step changes in digital tools, check out the new video conferencing service, Around.

To capitalise on this growth opportunity you have to be customer obsessed. The best products I've designed in my career have been when the whole team was immersed in the customer's world. It was like method acting but for product innovation. These environments create collective "aha moments". The mastering of the problem creates a moment when the solution becomes obvious to the whole team.

If you find yourself in a situation where designing value propositions feels hard or forced, it's a good signal that the team hasn't truly understood the customer problem. For example, the best design sprints involve less sketching and ideation and more focus, understanding and discussion of the problem space.

In this article, I'm going to provide some advice, observations and field notes on mastering the problem space and being more customer obsessed.

Differences in starting point:

I've worked in both the startup world and with corporate innovation teams. There's a big difference in how both get started.

  • Entrepreneurs, usually, have lived experience. They are fixing a problem they have experienced themselves. This problem becomes the passion and motivation behind a new startup business and proposition. The big challenge for the founding team is whether or not their problem is something that they just experience or if it's a problem experienced by a wider market.
  • Corporate innovation teams usually don't have lived experience. The absence of this and the fire in the belly of a Founder/CEO means their starting point is radically different. Without the lived experience of a problem, they can be easily distracted by business objectives and incremental improvements to existing products. However, their advantage is they have a huge amount of talent and resources to figure this stuff out.

Even though the starting points are different, the solution is the same. Whether it's to validate a founder's "lived" experience or for corporate innovation teams to discover what a customer's problem is - being customer obsessed is the solution.

Ultimately, whether you're a startup or a corporation, it's all about the customer. If I were in a physical space, I'd have something like this on the wall (I love Gapingvoid).

Gapingvoid, The Customer, Customer Obsessed
Source: Gapingvoid

5 ways to get obsessed with your customers:

Always start with the customer problem, not the technology or your business problem. Before the product is live in the market, your number one risk is propositional i.e. whether or not people will buy what you create. Here are the steps to becoming more customer obsessed and minimising your propositional risk.

1. Avoid doing research for the sake of research.

Research, strategy, and planning may all sound like "nice to haves". Especially in teams where the culture is to ship fast and to build, measure and learn (BML). But I would encourage patience at this early phase. Execution is everything and iterative learning through BML is important, but having the flexibility of mindset to know when to think strategically and when to double down on executing is a key muscle to develop in your team.

If you have committed time and budget to a phase of research and strategy, ensure you use it wisely and you're not just going through the motions.

2. Distil the customer problem to anchor your decision making.

When you obsess over the customer's problem you'll have hours of recorded interviews, reams of notes, lots of Post-it notes, messy whiteboards (physical or virtual) and spreadsheets of data. It's sensible to synthesise this into a report but that could still be 50+ slides. When you're making decisions about which feature to prioritise you're not going to want to trawl through that. A good way of distilling the essence of the customer problem is to produce a Customer Manifesto.

A Customer Manifesto is a one-page document that:

  • Set's the scene. What situation do customers find themselves in today?
  • The customer's struggle or problem. Writing this in the tone of a manifesto can really bring out the collective passion of the team. For example, "we think it's totally unacceptable that customers have to struggle with..."
  • How you aim to help customer's make progress This should be written around the customer's desired outcomes and not be too focused on potential solutions at this point.
  • How you will be different. Critique the current solutions in the market and identify the gaps your new proposition aims to fill.
  • Your belief statement. This will be your first stab at a mission statement. What's the purpose of your product and why does it exist?

In this early phase, the Customer Manifesto should be a living document and evolve as your thinking evolves. When writing the Customer Manifesto you should use as much of the customer's language as possible. In the research phase, note down common language patterns and keywords that customers use. It's likely that most people involved in this process won't be expert copywriters so don't try and make it sound slick or fill it with buzz words. Keep it raw and when you do introduce a copywriter, let them work their magic.

This is why we work in interdisciplinary teams. If you were good at everything, there would be no point in working in teams. Remember the expertise you have and understand the importance that it has on the dynamic of the creative process.

3. Create a proposition wheel.

This is a simple and brief description of the top three things your proposition will do for customers. It's really useful for forcing focus on your proposition because after lots of divergent thinking you need to start converging on some focus areas. A good activity for this is to ask each person to write out their idea for the proposition using these three sections:

  • Headline: The Job to be Done written as a benefit
  • Description: What the product does for the customer. Think about the pull factors and the desired outcomes from your research
  • How it's better: Write out how this is different to how customers currently act on this Job to be Done. Think about the push factors and pain points from your research

Once everyone's done this you can theme them up and create your proposition wheel.

4. Map the customer problem to the business problem.

Once the team has a strong focus on the customer problem then it's a good time to start mapping the business problems to it. It's important to stay true to the customer problem, this is what is going to drive demand in the market. However, how will this create value for your business? Some key questions to start asking:

  • Is there a platform or aggregation opportunity here? If so, what type of business would this serve? What are their Jobs to be Done and pain points?
  • Is there a way to attack your competitor's business model? For example, is there a subscription business model opportunity? Not only is this great for your business's valuation and predictability of revenue, but it is also appealing to end-users (be it consumers or businesses).
  • How might this product work alongside other products in your portfolio? Can you leverage the advantages of bundling? Can you build out a new capability that benefits other parts of the business?

5. Don't rush too quickly into designing a solution

I'm a big fan of the Google Ventures design sprint. There's a lot of activities and ideas I use. The problem with it is that of the 5 days, less than a day is thinking about the problem. I would almost invert this and spend way more time thinking about the problem and less time trying to design the solution. In my experience, there are three key questions a design sprint is trying to answer:

  1. What is the problem we're trying to solve?
  2. What is the value proposition and how will it solve the problem?
  3. How do we design the solution?

If you master the problem with a team with mixed backgrounds and experience the solution will come much more easily. In this scenario, the use of design activities (like Crazy 8s or Storyboarding) becomes really focused and much less performative.

How to stay aligned with the customer:

Founder of Y Combinator, Sam Altman, famously said:

“There are only two things a start-up should focus on: talking to customers and writing code”.

This applies as much to corporate innovation teams as it does to startup ups.

Once you've defined the proposition, it's essential to keep the strategists, designers and engineers coordinated and in sync. Even though you have a good understanding of the customer problem and how you will solve it, there's still a lot more learning and iteration to happen. Not getting too attached to the solution is critical to creating something that solves the problem. Here are three tips to keep everyone obsessed about the problem and not too attached to the solution.

3 top tips:

1. Don't design in high definition too early.

I love working with designers, they make things look beautiful. The problem with beauty is that it's easy to fall in love with and hard to let go. Mapping out low-fi user flows and running paper tests early on is a faster and easier way to iterate. Your goal is to iterate quickly and build up confidence in the proposition you're creating. It's easier to revise or scrap low-fi designs.

It's equally important to not commit a lot of time to writing code. Engineers are important to the creative process but their time is best spent exploring and experimenting. Using Spikes at this early stage can add to the creative process and re-imagine the user journey if successful. A Spike is a way to explore different solutions quickly to test how things work together. For example, they could help with re-thinking the onboarding journey or how APIs can be used to simplify the user journey. Your lightning demos might have surfaced some really cool ways of doing stuff that you might want to apply to your own proposition. For example, look at how simple Fast is helping customers pay for things online. How does that work and how might we apply those techniques to your product?

The key approach is to prioritise experiments over look and feel, which leads me on to my next point...

2. Have a disposable mindset.

Test quickly and test regularly. Be hypothesis-driven and be prepared to rethink and redesign. There are many types of things you're testing for:

  • Friction points. Where do customers get stuck? It might seem logical to you but those using your service will be sceptical and apprehensive. How do you help them get past these points?
  • Comprehension. Using the customer's language will help with making your proposition understandable. However, when people arrive on a website they typically decide within two seconds whether or not this is what they were looking for. What will people take away from your website in two seconds? Simplify the message, test and simplify it again.
  • Demand. Is the proposition strong enough to get people to sign up or download the proposition you're building? I'm not a fan of testing demand using surveys, it's really hard for people to visualise themselves needing a product in the context of a survey. What works well is standing up a landing page and driving traffic to it using AdWords or social media advertising. Having a sign-up page get early access to the beta version or being notified when the product is launched is a better way to test demand.
  • User experience. This testing is more observational and task-focused. Do users understand how the information is presented to them in the app? Do the design patterns make sense? How intuitively does the experience solve the Job to be Done and alleviate the pain points? Focused qualitative interviews with customers using prototypes are the best way to answer these questions.

Iterating quickly through this phase will help you build confidence and a business case to invest more in building out the MLP (Minimum Loveable Product).

3. Build community.

A community is a place for customers or future customers to engage with the team and the product you're building. You can run these groups on Facebook but there are much better platforms like Discourse, PeerBoard, Tribe and many others. Communities are a great resource to enable an experimental and disposable mindset. In the early stages, they are small and support both formal and informal testing. As the proposition is being built the community can grow and be a driver of customer advocacy and word of mouth. Externally facing communities can also help build SEO and shape your brand's identity before you've even launched your product. I'll be writing more about this soon.

A recession is always a good time to innovate. A recession, and a fundamental shift in how we all live and work forced upon us by a pandemic, is an unprecedented time to innovate. More than ever before we need to obsess about the customer to understand how their struggles in life have changed and what areas of life require different types of solutions.

I've provided lots of tips on how to get started when designing new products or services. Brand and communication are also important. There's no space to cover that here, but my colleagues have recently published a guide to creating Minimum Lovable Brands.  

11FS's Guide to Minimum Lovable Brands 


A Minimim Lovable Brand or MLB, is a modern, iterative approach to brand that's fit for start ups or new proposition design. Well worth a read.

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