Why surveys are not good for customer discovery?

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Customer discovery is not a research.

Some time ago (and many a times even now), when a new business idea is worked on, founders would quickly do some research, based on some primary set of information and some secondary.  Based on these initial findings, a product development would happen, and when the product is launched in the market, the founders might be in for a rude shock, to find there are no buyers for the product.   The whole efforts of making the new product go waste.


Because, there had been a huge gap between the time when some data was collected and time product is launched. There was no dialogue with prospects that continued through and contributed to the product building phase.

This is one of the core principles of lean startups.

In lean starup building, you continue a dialogue with the prospects and their ongoing feedbacks goes actively into new product building. The whole process is like small experiments, rather than getting the full product out, done rapidly, that seek active feedback from prospects by way of either discussions or an action or both.

We all know now, lean startup methodology does have a value. In this, there is a greater chance that we don’t end up putting in wasteful efforts, there is a greater chance that we will know much early what works and what doesn’t.  And, more importantly, there is a greater chance that we will build a product that customers want to buy.

Despites all this, how many of us do customer discovery in real sense?

Many founders feel organizing and conducting one-on-one interviews is  unproductive.  They feel, the whole process is time consuming and it takes focus away from product development, design and sales.

They instead settle for easy choices – “surveys” and “focussed group”.

Gathering a list of what features customers want by talking to them, surveying them, or running focus groups seem to be an easy option.  Surveys are good only when you know what questions to ask and what answers to suggest.  They’re great at validating a direction between a limited set of options (A vs. B) or at collecting factual information on a target population (age, gender, job income, etc).

Surveys have a limitation, when It comes to customer discovery.  Prospective customers are not good at expressing their needs, problems and opinions out of context. And, surveys don’t create context.  They aren’t very good for follow-through with prospects. You cant build a relationship with potential customers. In surveys, you are missing the opportunity for dialogue and relationship building. Surveys restrict you to a fixed set of questions. Interviews allow you to explore a potential customer’s answers and gain far greater insight.

Focussed group too have limitations. When you’re getting prospects give you feedback on their situation or your products, you should be talking with just one prospect at a time.  This helps you avoid “group think” and enables you to probe more deeply into the particular experiences of one client.  You cant derive actionable information from focus groups and the marginal return for every additional group interview decreases as you approach 10 groups vs. 10 participants.

Focus groups and surveys are often used to ask people what they might do in the future. In customer discovery, focus is on current preferences.

Interviews let you explore.  They help you understand a person individually and explore alternatives. With interviews, the depth of the understanding of the person and his/ her situation is more important.

Customer interviewing is the critical part of customer development process.

It will not only tell you if you’re going in the right direction, it will give you a map if you’re not.



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