Visiting customers "in the wild"

Too many product managers use opinions when data is required; they are in the office more than they should be. Market facts are found in customer environments, not in company meetings. NIHITO, baby!

It seems reasonable to be able to visit customers in their place of work but my friend Dave wonders about visiting people in their homes.

I think this gets into a tricky area. How do you set up a home visit? And should you?

I don't know about you but I'd be cautious of being alone with people in their homes. Lots of opportunity for misunderstanding. So be sure to do home visits with a colleague. And this may be inappropriate to say but I suggest that men should always do home visits with a female co-worker. Maybe I'm just a victim of the sexual harassment police but I'm uncomfortable being alone with any woman who isn't my wife.

If you sell products for home use, you really should understand the customer environment. Sitting in a person's home reveals much about the person and about the way the product will be used. You can see how the product does or could integrate with the rest of the household. With customers, you can see misuse of the product or whether it's under a bed or table without adequate ventilation, for instance.

Years ago, we had a pilot project for PC use in truck stops. Neither the engineers nor the product managers anticipated how much dirt was found in a truck stop! We found a thick layer of dust covering the motherboard, the fan could barely move from the accumulation of grime, and the PC was running much hotter than designed--there was no way for it to cool down. After only one month, the PC was choking! Poor thing! While not a home-use example, the truck stop was an environment that we couldn't duplicate in a lab. After all, we all work in air-conditioned cubicles.

One product manager specializing in home-school products set up three home visits with home school parents and learned much about the way the home school area was set up (or wasn't) and how the parents integrating learning into the family structure (or didn't). Could you see that in a coffee shop?

But if a home visit isn't possible, an interview at a coffee shop is a nice alternative. In fact, in most cases I would suggest that you start with an interview in a public place. If the interview progresses well and you create trust (both ways), then a home visit is a nice follow-up.

In a coffee shop interview, ask the client to walk you through a typical day. How does paper move around? What approval steps are necessary? When do they use the computer and when do they use Post-It notes? A coffee shop interview is better than a phone interview but an in-home interview is best of all.

In the old days, family doctors made house calls an integral part of their practices. How can you understand a family's health without seeing the family's environment? The same is true for product managers of products used in the home.

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was a founding instructor at Pragmatic Institute, a role he held for more than 15 years before he left to start Under10 Playbook. In his return to Pragmatic Institute, Steve supports the complete learning path for product teams, ensuring they are fully armed for success. 

Over the course of his career, Steve has helped thousands of companies and tens of thousands of product professionals implement product management processes. He has worked in the high-tech arena since 1981, rising through the ranks from product manager to chief marketing officer. Steve has experience in technical, sales and marketing management positions at companies that specialize in both hardware and software. In addition, he is an author, speaker and advisor on product strategy and product management.


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