17th April 2016

Finding and solving your customers' invisible problems

If you’re a business leader who’s under time pressure – and who isn’t these days – then you probably, and understandably, want get your product out in front of the public as soon as possible.

A publish and be damned approach is commendable; but for those who test with even a small number of customers, success awaits. Savvy businesses that test before release often find their customers’ invisible problems.

Publish and be damned

Ask any designer and they’ll tell you their best user-test story – instances of ‘ah ha’ moments when they discovered customers’ hidden challenges or unmet needs. I’ve had many ‘ah ha’ moments, but the one that sticks with me the most occured when I did my first user test.

I did my first user test by accident, but my findings then echo many of my findings today – customers often have invisible problems that can only be discovered and solved by involving them in the design process.

Back in my university days, I received an interesting email. It was a call for volunteers for a pilot study to see how local adults (aged 40+), who had never previously used a PC, could be best taught computer skills. The program wanted to pair about five university students with 10 people from the community. As volunteers, our job was to help the study’s students, and make note of where they were struggling.

Computers 101

The program worked like this; each Saturday for six weeks 10 adult learners (seven women and three men), aged between about 55 and 85, attended a practical lecture on how to use computers. The lesson was delivered by a lecturer in university, and then each volunteer would give one-to-one help to the students.

Since none of these students had ever used a computer before we started with the basics – how to turn on and off the device, after which we’d move on to more advanced skills, such as writing documents, and sending emails.

Lesson one was straightforward, the students took to it with few issues (although most complained about the abstract process of turning off the computer). But so far so good.

In lesson two we introduced the students to Word. Our plan was to show them how to open the application, and write a basic letter. But during the lesson noticed that there was a surprising gender divide – our male students were progressing with the task at a far slower rate than our female students.

Why the gender divide?

The technology itself, we assumed, couldn’t be the issue; one of the men was a mechanic, an other was an electrician. Perhaps it was their support network, or some other issue in the class.

At the end of the third lecture, I asked our male students to explain their difficulties to me. The keyboard, they told me, was the issue – we had never properly explained it to them. They didn’t understand why the keys were placed in such a random order.

They were progressing so slowly because they had never used a keyboard before. The seemingly random placement of the letters, the concept of the space bar and the multiple options available on each button (how can a 4 also be a $ and €)

One of the students explained to me that apart from being somewhat intimidating, he saw the keyboard as being a “thing women used...like an iron.” While many of the female students had been taught typing skills or had used a typewriter previously, none of our male students had – they were at an immediate disadvantage.

This was our first major insight. It was not enough to teach the students how to use the technology, we needed to understand how they thought about it. In designing the class we assumed our students would be as comfortable with the technology as we were, and would understand it as we did.

Uncovering invisible problems

Customers’ invisible problems don’t just belong to customers, they belong to companies. By understanding the roadblocks – physical or psychological – that stand in the way of their customers businesses can create solutions that make it easier for customers and companies to do business.

Customers’ invisible problems, once solved, become your company’s competitive edge.