Columbia Business School

Tips for Uncovering Your Customers’ Needs

Presented by Columbia Business School

How do you identify and uncover your customers' needs? Here is an image of a woman's face being scanned by a futuristic machine

Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving that focuses on the customers’ underlying needs.

Needs are unsatisfied actions, behaviors, or beliefs that arise from an unsolved problem, which often remain unnoticed, undiagnosed, or unarticulated. There are a number of ways to learn about your customers’ needs —Columbia’s Senior Fellow for Entrepreneurship and famed educator Steve Blank calls it “getting out of the building.” In design, we often refer to this as needfinding. Interviewing your customer is one of the most widely-used needfinding tools, and it is especially useful early on when entrepreneurs are exploring product/market fit.

Becoming a great interviewer takes a lot of practice; becoming a good interviewer is actually quite achievable. It is important to ask yourself: What needs do my customers have? Why do those needs exist? Do any of my ideas truly meet these needs? Here are a few tips, which, coupled with five or so practice interviews, should get you well on your way to understanding your customers’ needs.

Be focused, but not fixated.

Focus is having a clear sense of the problem you want to solve without being wed solely to one idea. This approach enables you to be open to uncovering a wide range of potential solutions, many of which may actually be better than your original idea. Fixation is committing to a solution, whether or not it actually addresses a meaningful problem. People who are fixated often only see the parts of their idea that work, and they block out constructive feedback that makes their idea better.

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Ask “why?” as often as you can.

Fundamentally, an interview is about connecting deeply with each unique customer. Needs show up as motivations, feelings, and decisions. A great way to uncover these is to routinely ask, “why did you decide to do that?” or “could you tell me more about how that situation felt to you?”

Do not sell.

This is needfinding, not sales. You are not trying to convince a customer that your idea is great, you are trying to understand what needs they have. When you mention your idea, the conversation will cease to be about needs and instead forever revolve around a solution. Discussing your idea is okay only after you have explored the interviewee’s needs. A good rule of thumb is to not share your idea until the final third of the interview.

Have a conversation.

Occasionally, students become so obsessed with asking the “right” question that they forget to simply be curious and listen. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from each conversation. Ultimately, the more customers you interview, the more insights and patterns you will uncover. This will allow you to flesh out needs and focus on the underlying problem that creates those needs.


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