LearnMake Better Product Decisions


Kevin Smith
writes on October 31, 2013

“Get out of the building and talk to customers” is wonderful advice because understanding your customers is perhaps the best way to improve your chances of making good product decisions. Knowing what makes people tick enhances your product intuition—your internalized view of how great products should be built. And, honing this intuition enables you to make better decisions, faster because you are utilizing first-hand internalized knowledge of your customers and products instead of outside systems or ways of thinking.

Three E’s of Understanding Customers

Let‘s break down what it means to understand your customers by exploring empathy, experience, and excitement.


Empathy is being able to feel what people feel when they use your products. To be able to step into their shoes and see the world as they see it. It is one of the most powerful areas of intuition you can develop. Becoming a more empathetic product maker will make many decisions a lot clearer because you’ll be able to see and, most importantly, feel what matters most to your customers. Anyone can learn to be more empathetic; the main requirement is starting with humility.

  • Talk to your customers. This simple act can give you a big boost of empathy if done with humility. This does not have to be complicated or scientifically perfect. Getting just one customer to talk with you is all it takes. Really dig into how your product fits into their life, and ask:
    • about their experience with your product,
    • open ended questions and truly listen to their responses, without judgment, and
    • about why they use your product and what it helps them do or be.
  • Use your product. If you want to know how your customers feel, you have to experience what they experience. Use your product on a daily basis. Push it like your customers do. Experience the pain of crashes but also (hopefully!) the delight of what you’ve built.


What experiences do people like or hate? User experience—UX—has become an entire profession for good reason; the quality of a product’s experience is often tantamount to its success. There are times when you need to make judgment calls or compromises to a product’s experience—how do you know what is the right call (ignoring for a second user research methods)? You can only do this well if you know how to judge what is the best tradeoff to make. Developing empathy also helps.

  • Observe your customers. Recruit customers for some hands-on sessions with your product. Like talking with your customers, these do not have to be scientifically perfect, but the simple act of watching people use your product will give you often surprising insight into what they expect or what frustrates them. Ask questions like “what do you expect here?”, “can you talk about this part of the product?”, “you look frustrated, why?” Be careful of leading questions, and look for unspoken desires.
  • Watch people in everyday life. People watching, a favorite pastime of the retired, is also helpful for understanding broad expectations that people have from their experiences. Watch as somebody interacts with the objects around them and pay particular attention to what seems to frustrate or delight them. Also pay attention to your own experiences: what experiences do you encounter everyday that are so well designed that they are invisible until you scrutinize them?
  • If you make digital products: talk to people that are not up-to-date with the latest technology trends. Ask them questions about why they do or do not like technology. Dig as deep as you can. Ask them about their favorite product and why it is their favorite. People love giving their opinions and all of this can feed into your growing internal storehouse of product intuition.


Given two products, can you say which one would be more exciting? Intuitively knowing what makes people excited is a huge competitive advantage. The Kano model is an easy way to categorize excitement features, but there is also an element of excitement that comes from how a feature is implemented.

  • If you make mobile applications, download lots and lots of applications, particularly those that are featured. Pay attention to the details and flow of each app. What did they get right? What feels off? Analyze the product decisions made. Keep notes on apps that inspire you or you think did a particularly good job in some way.
  • Browse sites like Little Big Details. This blog is a gold mine for getting a feel for the little details that excite people when using digital products. As Dieter Rams said, “My heart belongs to the details. I actually always found them to be more important than the big picture. Nothing works without details. They are everything, the baseline of quality.”
  • Pay attention to the products and features that people rave about. What do people glowingly tweet or post on Facebook? These are things that make them excited.

Go With Your Gut

In an age of data-driven decision making, we should not lose our grasp on the place for intuitive thinking. Having a well developed intuition about what makes products appeal to customers is essential for creating great products. Data-driven and scientific methods will not by themselves result in appealing products for humans. Grow your intuition and then use it to make the best products you can!


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