What are you trying to learn?

Posted on December 5, 2022.

Talk to your customers. Get out of the building. Voice of the customer. Exposure hours. Research. 

We have an endless amount of names for the process of listening and learning from the people who consume the products and services we make. On top of those names we have an endless amount of advice (this blog included) about how to run those activities successfully. But when are we actually done with this round of user interviews? How do we know we’ve talked to enough people? If we’re trying to be “lean” about our ways of working, doing just enough work to move the conversation forward, we need to set up each of these activities with a specific learning goal. 

Align around the learning goal

Before starting any customer learning initiative the team must answer, together, what are we trying to learn? Often the answer to this question has many answers. That’s normal. Perhaps then it’s better to phrase it as, “What’s the most important thing we need to learn right now?” While there are many things we need to learn at any given moment, there are fewer things that will break our progress or thinking immediately 

Setting out on a customer interview session with a clear sense of what we need to know right now aligns the team around the learning goal. Everyone knows “why” we’re doing this work and what impact it could have on our work. The value of the exercise is clear and reduces the risk of it being questioned or worse, deprioritized.

There’s one other benefit to alignment around the learning goal — a greater chance of participation in the research by folks outside of product or design. Engineers that are working on a feature the learning goal impacts are more likely to join an interview session to see if they’re working towards a successful solution. What they learn firsthand doesn’t have to be translated for them into a report. They can begin to change their approach immediately. 

Know when to move on

When a team knows what it needs to learn it makes it much easier to know when the research activity is done. While we want to do research in every sprint there needs to be a clear definition of done for the individual exercises we put into the backlog. If a team is clear on the learning goal they can cut an exercise short if the early evidence is overwhelming in one direction or another. Each customer interview also can be shortened or lengthened depending on how well the customer fits the profile necessary to achieve the learning. 

While we may not use the word “lean” as often as we did a few years ago, employing the principles of lean still makes sense. Setting out on a customer learning activity with a clear learning goal articulated and agreed upon ensures that we do just enough work to achieve that learning goal. We reduce the waste of doing too much or spending too much time in the wrong direction. Remember to ask, “What’s the most important thing we need to learn right now?” every time you set out to talk to your customers.