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10 tips for customer discovery in the social impact sector

What do you do when you get outside and how do you talk to customers effectively, especially in the social sector?
July 30, 2015

All good entrepreneurs will tell you that you’ve got to “get out of the building” and listen to customers. But what do you do when you get outside and how do you talk to customers effectively, especially in the social sector? These are all great questions we explore in more depth in +Acumen’s Lean Principles for Social Impact course but here are 10 tips for how to get out of the building and talk to people in the social sector.

Why is this important?  Many of us in the social sector came to this work because we were moved by a problem, and think we have valuable ideas to contribute towards a solution.  Lots of us are highly trained— you might have a graduate degree in social work, international relations, or public policy — which sometimes fools us into thinking we know everything. This puts us at risk of building solutions that work better in theory than in practice.
"We don’t get out of our heads and test our ideas with real people often enough."
That’s where customer discovery comes in. Customer discovery, a term coined by Steve Blank – one of the grandfathers of the Lean Startup approach to innovation, is a method for finding customers and soliciting lots of input in the early stages of building a new idea. The purpose: To test the key assumptions, that if proven wrong could bring down your entire new program or enterprise, before dedicating a ton of time and money to building it.
These 10 best practices build upon several excellent tips from Giff Constable’s book Talking To Humans (which we highly recommend you check out too).
1. Don’t just talk to people you know. Imagine you’ve developed a really cool prototype for a literacy game. Your target market is the children of nomadic herdsmen in central Asia, but you’re currently based in the capital city and decide it will be easier to just test your product with students at the local library. Will this work? You can get some valuable insights, but it’s not optimal. Customer discovery should push you beyond your comfort zone. As tempting as it can be, don’t just talk to the super enthusiastic student who always sits in the front row of the class, or the villager who shows up to every training session you offer, or the farmer who is the most friendly. You should seek out a representative customer sample, and that might mean tracking down people in hard-to-reach locations; people who are not outwardly hospitable; or people that speak a language different from your own.
"When you talk to new people, you often get the richest insights."
2. Meet in person. You may be designing products, services or programs for people who live miles away. However, in-person testing and conversation are extremely valuable and should be arranged whenever possible. You capture a great deal of nuance and insight when you see how someone holds your product in their hands or actually responds to a demo. Absent the ability to meet in person, try to arrange for a video conference or something that will provide visual and/or experiential feedback instead of just talking over the phone or email.
3. Set clear and fair expectations. Before you initiate an interview or product test, be clear about who you are, what you are doing, and what the outcomes might be. For example, if you are talking to incarcerated parents about their needs after release, make it clear that you will not necessarily be able to offer them all of the solutions you talk about, but are merely exploring what they need. Or if you are testing several new prototypes for a toilet that could help provide critical sanitation services in the slums, make sure the people you are testing with understand that this product might not actually come to market anytime soon. Avoid raising expectations too high or over-promising. Instead the key is to be clear and honest, explaining that you are hoping to build critical solutions, but are still very much engaged in exploratory research.
4. Talk to one person at a time. Lots of non-profits use focus groups to solicit feedback from people. This is not the same as customer discovery. When you’re getting people to give you input on products or services, you should focus on interacting with just one person at a time. Giff Constable says this helps you avoid “group think” and enables you to probe more deeply into the particular experiences of one individual. Keep in mind that before you arrange one-on-one meetings, you should be mindful of gender and cultural norms where you are working.  In some cases, it makes sense to have another note-taker or translator also present who can make the customer feel at ease, or can provide additional context to the feedback they provide.
5. Keep it human. Don’t feel like you have to stick rigidly to a script. Make time to build rapport, whether that means telling a personal story, or asking about someone’s day before you launch into questions. Especially if you are working with people from a culture other than your own, try to be respectful of their notions of time and space.  You may have to accept several cups of tea or a meal before you get down to business.
6. Make people comfortable enough to criticize your idea. You want to create a space where people feel able to give you honest feedback. Sometimes the least helpful thing you can hear is: “Yes, your idea sounds great.” Especially if you are entering a new community, people might be too polite to criticize or poke holes in your solutions. Look for the points where they get confused, or where they respond in a way you didn’t anticipate, and then ask them about these specific moments.
"The more you can put a real product in customers hands, the more authentic the insights you will gain."
7. Seek out stories. Most people love to narrate their experiences, and you’ll get the juiciest insights if you can slow them down and ask them to describe step-by-step how a particular process or event unfolded. The journalist Anna Sale from NPR says that whenever she is conducting an interview, she tries to picture how the events that someone is describing would happen. She says: “If I can’t picture the moment they’re describing I’ll just try to dig in a little bit more.” Pay particular attention to stories people have about pains they want to solve, or when they describe solutions they’ve already hacked together themselves. These can often become the kernel of an idea for a new solution.
8. Don’t allow interviews to interfere with critical services. This is hopefully obvious, but when you’re working in the social sector, you might be dealing with people who are sick or vulnerable or dealing with pressing issues. For example, if you are trying to design new products for hospital patients, it might make sense to talk to their families in the waiting room, rather than interfering with busy doctors or patients themselves. Or if you are talking to low-income mothers at a playground, make sure they can still keep an eye on their kids, even as you interview them. Consider the pressures your customers may be facing and choose circumstances for your interviews or product tests that take these realities into account.
9. Listen for behavior change, not just verbal affirmation. Most development workers can tell you the story of a community they worked with, where people eagerly accepted a handout of a new product, but then just put it in the corner to collect dust. Teachers accept new textbooks, but then lock them in the closet so the pages won’t get dirty. Housewives accept a new cookstove, but keep using their traditional oven.  Ask people to tell stories to get more color on how they actually use things, rather than just asking them whether or not they would use your product or service.  Frame your questions so that they elicit precise details rather than vague affirmations.  For example, ask something like “When was the last time you….”
10. Look for trends and patterns. You’re not a scientist. You don’t need to be collecting data that could be peer-reviewed and published in the next issue of Science, but you should be as thoughtful and methodologically rigorous as possible. Take notes and photographs or videos to document multiple aspects of your interaction. Once you’ve conducted your first few interviews, look for trends and patterns and then update your interview script to probe those areas of particular interest. When you start to identify themes across the stories that multiple customers tell you, or identify similar ways they interact with your products, you know you’re on to something.
Practice customer discovery techniques to build new solutions for social impact in our upcoming Lean Startup Principles for the Social Sector​ course. Register.