Guest Post: Actioning Customer Discovery Interviews

(Nick Noreña, a Lean Startup Coach at Kromatic, works with teams and organizations to help them implement Lean techniques in their daily business. An entrepreneur at heart, his favorite thing to do is work with early stage startups. If he’s not in his office in San Francisco, you can probably find him on a long bike ride, or on Twitter and LinkedIn.)

This is Part 2 of a two part blog post on effectively using the data you gather from customer discovery interviews. Check out Part 1 if you haven’t already.

After a round of customer discovery interviews, I often find myself inundated with data. To be honest, it’s a bit intimidating. I’ve tried lots of different approaches to organizing that data, from writing up long and verbose reports, to just giving the rest of my team the raw data and telling them to make sense of it (take a wild guess as to how well that worked). What I found was that while I had accrued lots of data I was always left begging for actionable insights.

So how do we actually interpret all of that data we worked so hard to collect?

Find patterns

When we are doing customer discovery interviews, we are collecting a lot of qualitative data. After doing several interviews, you will start to recognize patterns in the responses you are getting.

For instance, if your goal going into the interviews is to understand how people communicate with their family members, you might find that 7/10 people use WhatsApp to do so. That’s an important pattern! Or perhaps your goal is to discover new pieces of software for editing your photos. 4/10 people you interviewed mentioned a piece of software you had never heard of. Maybe worth exploring further!

customer discovery

The challenge with finding patterns from customer discovery interviews is that much of (if not all) that data you collect is qualitative. In order to find those patterns, you need to quantify your data.

The first step in quantifying my qualitative data is tagging your notes with “themes.” In this context, themes are the subject that each note revolves around, or underlying threads. These themes generally end up being either problems you hear or solutions you learn about, but can really be anything. For many data sets, you won’t realize the themes until you sit down after your interviews and dig into the notes.

Let’s go through an example: you are thinking of opening up a food delivery service in San Francisco, and are interviewing potential customers to learn about their dinner habits. One of your interviewees, Sally, says “I love to eat gourmet foods, but I prefer the company of a few close friends at my house for dinner than loud, boisterous restaurants.” A theme for this direct quote might be “doesn’t like to go out.” You can even spread this note into other themes, like “loves gourmet food.” After interviewing 15 more people like Sally, you realize that maybe instead of opening a food delivery service, you might want to explore a service that brings chefs into peoples’ homes and cooks a gourmet meal there instead of at a restaurant.

illustration - focus group v2

I like to use a really simple spreadsheet to visualize my qualitative data. The spreadsheet includes a color coded key for the different notes you take (see Part 1 for an overview on what those notes are), and space to fill in notes for different themes. You can download it here:


Feel free to use it yourself, and better yet, come up with your own template!

Go with your gut

“Wait a second, I thought Lean is all about being data driven so you don’t have to go with your gut?!?!”

While it’s true that you shouldn’t just go with your gut, the important thing to understand here is that by having customer conversations, you are training your gut to make informed decisions. You won’t capture everything in your notes, and you will always leave the conversation with a “feel” for how it went. That is an important signal! But always make sure to listen to that signal only after actually conducting the customer discovery interviews.

illustration - Fork in the road decisions

Quick aside: I think the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur is balancing vision with data and vice versa. By simply immersing yourself in the process of talking to customers, you train yourself to listen to the world around you, and that can affect what your vision looks like before you even unpack your data. Let your biases be your strength!

Another thing I should note is that this is why it’s so critical that the CEO and founding team (i.e. the decision makers) are the ones actually conducting these customer conversations, or at least being a part of the process by taking notes during them. This happens too many times with teams I work with: they will do an excellent job of collecting data and gathering insight, and the decision maker, who wasn’t present for those conversations for whatever reason, will shoot down the data because she is going off of her gut (the gut that wasn’t in the room during those conversations). If that happens to you, bring the decision maker into the next conversation(s). If they still say no, at least you will know that they are making a more informed decision.

Make sure the HIPPO is in the customer discovery interviews!

Another benefit of going with your gut is that it is action oriented. By removing barriers to making a decision, such as the need for more data, or wanting to get something perfectly right before moving on, we can get to experimenting faster.

Note: If you’re looking for some guidance on how to design lean experiments, download our Learn SMART Experiment Template.

 It’s all about that action

Ultimately these customer discovery interviews need to lead us somewhere. Sure it feels nice just talking to people and learning about their problems. But as entrepreneurs, we need to do more than that. We need to always make sure we are progressing towards something that will move our business forward. So when it comes to actioning your data, find patterns, go with your gut, do whatever it takes to build momentum. And remember, it all starts with talking to real people.

Here’s the template again if you missed it before:


Discussion (2 comments)

  1. John Collins says:

    This is brilliant stuff but the challenge still remains that many companies “talk” about understanding customers but when faced with the cold hard facts its all too hard. In essence, many who embrace lean startup are early adopters – they totally get the need to talk to customers and adopt a very different methodology to traditional waterfall development.
    We have a new Prime Minister in Australia who is ex private industry and very successful in his own right. He spoke recently about Australian industry needing to be more “agile” and suddenly agile is the new buzz word but dig down and most have NFI what agile really is – “but its what everybody is talking about so we have to be part of it”.
    The work that you are doing is brilliant because it is consistent and you explain it so simply. The challenge for early adopters from manufacturing sectors is getting the highly paid CEO and Board of Directors understanding how important lean startup is. Sadly, many companies are guilty of innovation theatre – putting on a facade. A colleague of mine applied for a job recently and prior to her interview spoke to a bunch of users of the companies product. The company was in shock that she knew so much and that she had outlined problems that they didn’t know about. She phoned circa 15 users in a 24 hr period.
    Customer discovery is critical for moving forward – if only others within a business embraced your idea of talking to real people instead of commissioning market research. Love your work!

    1. Tristan says:

      I agree! It’s very often a façade of agile terminology with little action. It can be very frustrating for teams that go through customer discovery and then have their facts vetoed by “strategic reasons” which really just amount to a senior executives opinion.

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