Getting out of the building while you Stay home

This is not a sequel to my previous post How being an introvert can help you with customer interviews, although the topic is strikingly relevant in times of social distancing.

Product teams everywhere are dealing with a lot of stress and uncertainty due to the devastating impact of COVID-19 outbreak. Our roadmaps have changed, team alignment has shattered, OKRs seem to have become irrelevant and most of all, our customers have changed. If we haven’t adopted continuous customer discovery, now is the time.

The key to grasping what the future of our product will be after COVID-19, we need a deep understanding of how our customers were affected — their online behaviour, purchasing habits, content consumption, priorities, trust in brands, budgets etc.

It may seem counterintuitive, but I believe product teams need to consider temporarily shifting everyone’s focus from delivery to discovery.

This might be our safest bet to make informed product and investment decisions for the future.

What made sense for our products a month ago, probably doesn’t anymore. We need to make difficult decisions.

This reality hit my team just after we’ve completed an extensive customer discovery stage with one of our clients. At this point we had evidence of a problem-solution fit, user journeys and stories mapped out, wireframes and designs aligned, information architecture & tech stack defined, an A-team ready to roll… then our country went into a complete lockdown for COVID-19.

Since our solution was targeting business managers, it became obvious their priorities have changed drastically overnight, and so did their budgets. But managing this magnitude of uncertainty was uncharted territory for us. This realisation not only meant we had to hit the brakes on development, go back to the drawing board to redefine the problem hypotheses, but we had to redefine our usual discovery process as well.

We needed to accept the fact that we cannot plan more than 1 or 2 steps, and that sticking rigidly to frameworks and checklists might not get us the insight we needed, or at least not quickly enough. This didn’t mean that we needed to reinvent the wheel, but rather browse through our ‘customer discovery toolbox’ to find and combine methods, that we believed will work best in this particular context. We focused on methods that are quick, efficient and will give us: a deep understanding of the problem space, genuine user insights and a cross-functional perspective.

We have used a combination of the following validation assets for remote customer discovery in the past weeks:

  • problem interviews,
  • customer journey maps,
  • service blueprint,
  • HMW (How Might We) statements,
  • an interactive prototype,
  • landing page,
  • pitch deck,
  • solution interviews,

while in parallel on the business side we tackled redefining Minimum Viable Segments, Minimum Viable Business Models and value propositions.

Note that this is not a silver bullet — each team is different, each customer segment is different and how you approach discovery should reflect that. While our team is still learning to overcome all the challenges of doing discovery remotely, in the spirit of rapid learning, I wanted to share 3 areas, where we considerably needed to change our approach and adopt new behaviours.

1. Remote ideation workshops

Our team is used to working remotely, as our clients are almost exclusively from the UK and our team is in Slovenia, so we have always done all the agile rituals, retrospectives, all-hands meeting etc., on video calls. But large ideation workshops are a whole other beast.

In the past we insisted on doing these old school — the majority of the participants in the same location, drawing on whiteboards, using sharpies and a massive number of sticky notes. But more importantly, being able to read the room.

Determined to make this work in an online setting, in week #3 of social distancing, we decided to go ‘all in’ and did a 5-day ideation workshop with 8 people. Admittedly, this week was tough, even with a well-oiled team. Apart from the virtual sticky-notes burnout, I felt like a failure. Not for not being able to pull it off, but for not possessing the mad facilitator skills required to provide the same experience as in person.

But what helped, at least to a degree, was having the right roles in the (virtual) room. This way everyone not only contributed their unique expertise but also owned parts of the process. It depends on the type of workshop you’re running, but we found that sticking to design sprint roles, makes up the best cross-functional ideation team — i.e. a designer, marketer, customer service representative, developer and decider. Note that this does not necessarily mean 6 people, there can be less if some wear several hats.

Many useful assets came out of these workshops. What was especially brilliant (and new) to me, was the fact that developers started to use design thinking approaches to map out tech concepts in a way that is unbelievably friendly and easy to grasp.

Mapping out tech concepts using sticky notes

Our tool of choice: Even before social distancing and going fully remote, our team regularly used Miro for collaboration on user story mapping, roadmaps and retrospectives, but it has proven to work perfectly for ideation workshops as well.

2. Remote recruiting and execution of interviews

When it comes to selecting the right method for relevant customer feedback, qualitative research via interviews is still our top pick, even in times of social distancing. Communicating asynchronously via email will take too much time and won’t let you dig deep with follow-up questions, not to mention, you will miss all the non-verbal cues that you might catch using a video-conferencing tool.

There are many appropriate video conferencing solutions out there (Zoom, Google Hangouts, MS Teams, Whereby, Skype, Webex, Around…), but I believe you as the interviewer need to be tool-agnostic. Always ask the respondent what they need to feel confident and comfortable and try to meet their preferences when it comes to remote interviews.

If you’re doing solution interviews or usability studies, consider a tool that will allow you to seamlessly incorporate the visuals as well. Either prepare a presentation to help guide the entire conversation, showcase the solution through a landing page or include an interactive prototype (InVision, Figma, Adobe XD, Framer X or an actual coded prototype) via screen share if you have it ready.

What may be more challenging in times of social distancing than actually conducting interviews is recruitment. Since coming up to chat with someone in real-life (e.g. at an industry event, after a meeting, at the point of purchase) is not an option for the foreseeable future, you will need to reach out to them via email or phone. This will not be as difficult if these are people you know or you can get an introduction from someone in your network.

If reaching out to people you know is not an option, you can always try using the cold emails approach. These are just a few options on how to get those email contacts:

  • LinkedIn — use LinkedIn’s search to find customers in your target segment and reach out to them via direct message.
  • Mechanical Turk (Disclaimer: I haven’t tried it out myself, but it seems to be the weapon of choice for outreach).

What’s worth keeping in mind is that people are under a lot of stress at the moment and they may be less inclined to spend their time doing interviews, especially in the B2B context. Be understanding, compassionate and don’t push them. The message needs to be clear, we’re doing this to learn about and help solve their problems.

3. Accelerated learning

Since most likely the assumptions about your customers have changed overnight, and your product’s roadmap depends on the learnings of these interviews, you might not have the luxury to do a large number of interviews

Recommendations on how many interviews you should do vary from source to source, but the industry seemed to settle on a minimum of 5 conversations — if your business is not very complex and you have a well-defined and narrow enough customer segment. The general rule of thumb, however, is to stop interviewing when the insights start repeating themselves.

As fluffy as the following advice may be, it might make the most sense to follow the product team’s intuition when it comes to drawing the line and deciding whether we have achieved a problem-solution fit or not. In other words, stop interviewing when it becomes bluntly evident that your problem hypothesis has been invalidated or validated — no sooner, no later. In our case, it took 3 interviews to confirm that the problem we were trying to solve was not a problem, that our customers were facing at that point. Any further interviewing would not bring additional learning, which is why we stopped and pivoted.

How valuable the learning will be is heavily dependent on your interview script and execution. As far as good practices on conducting customer interviews go, nothing changes when you apply them to remote interviewing, but here are a few B2B interview questions that you can use to help frame the recent problem space related to COVID-19:

  • What has been keeping you up at night in the last month? — build rapport, show empathy and identify key pain points
  • Have you faced a situation similar to the current one in the past? How did you approach solving these problems back then? — this is all new to everyone, but perhaps there are some parallels that customers can draw from past economic crises
  • Can you give an example of a measure you implemented in the past that has proven successful and a measure that has failed? — see how the approach problem solving
  • Which 3 challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic did you prioritize in the past weeks? — narrow down on the biggest pain points
  • Have you implemented any solutions to these problems? Can you give us some examples? — see how if they approach problem-solving differently in this situation
  • Have you been actively seeking any external solution/service in the last weeks to help you solve these problems? — assess possible opportunities
  • Where did you look for information on potential solutions? Which sources did you most trust and why (why not)? — assess which channels will be useful to reach out to them

Since you may end up doing fewer interviews than usual, you’ll need to focus even more on active listening to be able to read between the lines and ask the right follow up questions. But more importantly, you’ll need to pay extra attention to check your biases and not mistake false positives like “I love it” or “I’d totally buy this” for a problem-solution fit. Before you start the validation process, define clearly what success means. You should be looking for soft or hard commitment e.g. a scheduled next meeting, agreement to participate in the pilot or even a pre-purchase.

I’d like to conclude by referencing Teresa Torres’s webinar I attended last week called Why There’s No Single “Right” Way to Do Discovery. I believe this narrative has never been more on point than now. I don’t believe we have ever dealt with such rapid, under-researched and far-reaching impacts on customer behaviour before. This requires a mindset shift and an open discovery path — product teams need to accept extreme uncertainty and focus only on the immediate next step. In the end, it’s never been our job to find the perfect solution, but to try and solve customers’ problems with a best-effort approach.

Want to chat more about doing customer interviews for your tech venture? Get in touch at