Your Customers May Be Clueless, but You Needn't Be

We all want to make our customers happy by giving them what they want and need, right? Well, it depends. Voice of the Customer (VoC) is aimed at clarifying customer wants and needs, but how you approach the process can make all the difference.

First, you must be absolutely sure that you're speaking to the right people for the right reason. Many people head out into the world to do VoC work, but they're asking random questions to the wrong people. For instance, you might be asking doctors questions about how well they like a certain surgical tool, but that particular tool might be something that's only purchased on the whim of a hospital buyer. The doctor might not have anything to do with it. This provides great usability information, but not from your true customer. The doctor will likely have input, but you need to be sure to get information from the person that's going to actually be making a buying decision.

It could be worse. Somebody in marketing says, "Let's talk to customers in the field. Find out what they want. And then we'll know how to create a product that they like that's wildly successful." And so, a marketing person meets with a doctor and asks, "What do you think of this device? What do you want?"

Given these questions, what is the doctor supposed to think? They're put on the spot, taken off-guard. And doctors typically don't understand how to dig down into levels of functionality. They may spew a few things off the top of their heads. You may get some good data and you may not. If the doctor says, "It should have a big handle sticking off the right-hand side," and you go back and make it that way, it can be a potentially huge mistake. The reason is that, in your research, you must discover the "needs behind the need."

Perhaps a better question to ask is, "What do you need to be successful when you're setting this up, holding it over the patient, or operating it as a device? What do you need to do to make sure you're successful?" Now you're at the beginning stages of understanding how to design a solution that provides its users with the things they need to be successful.

This way you don't end up just designing what the customer asks for, which can be dangerous. Henry Ford said that if he would have listened to his customers, he would have designed a faster horse. That's one of the biggest pitfalls of VoC -- just giving the customers what they ask for straight up.

Generally speaking, people don't know, off the top of their heads, without proper questioning and preparation, what they really want and need. They might have some ideas, but probing questions and structured, in-depth interviews and observations are key. Otherwise, you might just get the answer of the moment.

It's your job to find the right people, ask the right questions, to dig deeper, and properly prepare your users so they can provide you

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