Customer-led product development through design thinking

Be open to what the market is trying to tell youDoing what’s best for our customers certainly can help our brands be successful long-term. But what are the best strategies to help us get there? Design thinking is one and can make our products better for customers. In the context of design thinking, it also helps to think about the customer as a person with problems and needs that your product or service can solve and help with.

“It’s so easy for that to sometimes get missed,” said Voxpopme CTO and Co-Founder Andy Barraclough about thinking of your customers as people on an episode of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “In a tech business you refer to your users and the connection to the customer gets lost a little. So for me it’s really about who that person is that is interacting with that product.”

Then of course, you want to keep that focus and alignment going across all the teams.

“It’s so easy to look at a number, a user, a usage stat,” Andy said. “But it’s really about that person you are trying to empathize with.”

How important is it to involve customers in product development?

“It’s fundamental and it’s so key of what we do when we innovate on any product,” Andy said.

We go through stages and think about what stage we are in with a specific product. Let’s look at what is design thinking, and how do you bring customers into each stage. The stages are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

“And I think the real key is – all those stages feed into each other,” Andy said.

Rand Fishkin, founder of Spark Toro, mentioned on another episode of “Reel Talk” that a good number of target customers will judge a product on its first impression for the foreseeable future, which makes it even more important to roll out in a way that appeals to customers.

“If you launch a minimal viable product and many people see it for the first time they will remember their experience with that product,” Rand said. “They will not go ‘I see this is a promising product and some day it can be great so let me give the team time.'”

Rand said he took that to heart when they launched Spark Toro. They wanted it to be as close to perfect for an initial rollout as possible. They invited Beta testers and went from there.

“We did two rounds of that Beta and invited several hundred folks to play with and try the product for free,” Rand said. “That first version looked and felt completely different. And we got a lot of feedback about that.”

Read next: What business growth strategies are best for my business?

Empathizing with your customers

Let’s take the empathize stage. This is where you really need to understand the customer’s problems and how you are trying to solve them. This can be easier to do when you face the same problem as a consumer.

“This is where we need to immerse ourselves into the environment of our customers,” Andy said. “And then how do we socialize that internally.”

Then use the feedback you are getting to make improvements that are beneficial to your customers.

understand your customers better now

Jenn Vogel, vice president of marketing at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk” said that companies truly need to empathize with their customers. Companies can tell when empathy isn’t meant.

Defining a human-centered problem statement

From there, create a problem statement that focuses on the person.

“When you start with the empathize stage you can then think about that actual human at the end of the product,” Andy said. “What’s that problem statement we are trying to solve for that individual? And a lot of that is gathered from the empathize stage.”

This process helps the team analyze and synthesize observations.

The wording also matters here. For example, Voxpopme has a process to gather customer feedback and internal ideas. Years ago this was called “feature request,” a term that was abandoned because it wasn’t focusing on a human-centered problem, said Jenn.

“Using the term feature request or idea was skipping the empathy stage and it went right into ‘I have an idea’,” Jenn said. “It’s really important to understand the problem.”

Some internal teams don’t hear directly from customers which makes this approach even more important, Andy added.

If a product team gets asked to create features they can do that, but it’s also easy to miss an opportunity for improvement if they don’t know about the reason a feature should exist.

“You have to make a conscious effort to disseminate that information,” Jenn said.

Elisabeth Trawinski, director of insights and analytics at Reckitt on an episode of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show,” also mentioned that her team uses video surveys in this early stage of the customer journey.

“To get some understanding from people what the reality is,” she said. “Getting their language and understanding.”

Her team also uses video surveys to understand what else to dive into deeper as the process evolves.

“What are the questions we should ask,” she said. “Video insights have been quick and very consumer focused to start that learning process.”

David Kidder, CEO of Bionic and who spoke at the 2021 Virtual Insight Summit, said companies need to stop making things for customers but instead “solve with them. Shoulder to shoulder. With trust. And be with them.”

Ideas for product improvements

What problem is being solved for the customer“From there we feed into ideation,” Andy said. “Ideation is also about volume.”

Brings lots of ideas, brainstorm and then also get feedback – for example through video surveys – form your customers. One way to come up with a lot of ideas is to have “Worst Possible Ideas” sessions.

“I first learned about Worst Possible Ideas sessions from you a couple of years ago,” said Jenn. “And I love doing them… even outside of product development.”

Since many great ideas, start with horrible ones this is a great way to get people to be comfortable, get in the right mindset and start sharing things that they may consider a terrible idea but that is actually a good one. Or could turn into a good one.

“We need to get our teams to put the customer at the forefront of these ideas,” Andy added. In addition to using video surveys, remember to talk to others in your organization to find out what customers are saying. That includes really anyone who talks to and hears from customers:

“All of those perspectives can really feed into the ideation of that idea,” Andy said.

Gia Laudi, co-founder at Forget the Funnel, says it’s important to give your teams freedom and “ironically you do that by given them constraints,” Gia said on another episode of the podcast. That can then help them understand the moment when customers take the leap of faith to buy your product.” 

Create a culture of feedback

Take steps to create a culture where feedback isn’t just appreciated, but a part of everyday life. Create a culture that’s conducive to feedback and brainstorming.

You can go the route of an always-on video feedback channel using Voxpopme, or even have a brainstorming or feedback channel on Slack where people can freely throw out ideas and constructive feedback. This will help your team become more comfortable giving feedback and give them a chance to get to know one another better.

Work with outside help to uncover solutions

You likely have a number of vendors or agencies you work with regularly. Assuming you have a great relationship, vendors and agencies are a core part of your team. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they feel about a particular idea or solution.

Their experiences are unique and can yield original and often useful insights. And because they know your business well, their external feedback will come with the advantage of being reinforced with knowledge of your company.

Keep the feedback flowing

Continue to reach out to your audience and request video feedback on your ideas. Since consumer behavior is still changing as you go through development, there’s never a wrong time to ask for feedback. Even if you feel you’ve arrived at a great solution during the ideation stage, some last-minute feedback can help you make minor tweaks. All of this feedback will only serve to make your next round of product development even stronger.

If you’re noticing a theme during this stage, that’s great. Ideation is all about receiving feedback and taking it to heart. Once your idea is feedback-proofed, it’s time to prototype it.


That’s where we come up with inexpensive versions of what we think we want to do. For example, wireframes.

At the prototype stage, your focus is on creating your tangible solution to the consumer problem. You’ve gotten a ton of feedback and gone through ideation—now, it’s time to make a solution based on your feedback thus far.

Work with your team to create a minimum viable product (MVP) or rough draft equivalent, then reach out to your audience for feedback ASAP. You’ll want to ensure you’ve followed all MVP best practices, otherwise, the feedback will be for naught.

Once you’ve received feedback, it’s time to make sense of it. If feedback is negative, don’t fret. Instead, look through the other stages of the product development cycle and ask yourself where things may have gone wrong. It’s possible your prototype missed the mark, but it’s also possible you missed a vital data point during an earlier stage.

For example, maybe you missed feedback during the “Define” stage and wound up solving a problem that didn’t exist. By carefully examining each stage and reviewing the feedback you received, you can determine where things went awry.


Then in the testing phase we can see if it can work. “Are we accomplishing what we are trying to accomplish?” Andy said. “Did it meet our expectations with what we are trying to do with the problem statement?”

Getting customer feedback

A lot of times companies wait to the testing phase – or later – to get customer feedback. But as part of the design thinking process, getting feedback at different stages can help with making products better one step at a time, Andy explained.

How to get feedback

In a software product, you can ask for feedback in specific places in the platform where it makes sense. Asynchronous video surveys are another way.

Read next: Customer health: How do you measure relationships with your customers?

“It’s also good to understand where to to get that customer feedback,” Andy said. “What best suits your customer to want to give you that feedback. It’s always great to see how many customers want to give feedback.”

It helps with the relationship, too, Andy added. They feel listened to and this can even impact positively the quality of their feedback.

“That’s a really good distinction – how does the customer want to be involved?” Jenn added. “What medium do they want to use and what’s the timing and really being conscious of that?”

It’s certainly a big win when a customer notices a new feature and mentions that the previous feature was a challenge for them.

“The customers saying ‘you solved my problem’ that’s the goal,” Jenn said.

Once that feedback comes back, make sure it’s shared internally to the right people. “That’s when you get that energy going,” Andy said.

Overcoming biases

Of course, we all have our own biases. That also applies to product development. The closer we are to the product, the harder it can be to spot some problems and perspectives.

“That’s really something to be conscious of,” Andy said. “Especially at the start of an idea. You want it to succeed. You want that to be the answer. It’s so easy to be blinded by that idea.”

Especially when starting a new company or a new product this can come into play. “You want that to be the answer, but you have to bring it back to reality a little bit,” Andy said. “You have to check yourself.”

It’s also helpful to have diversity on the team to and get different ideas and perspectives.

Look at the numbers. If changes lead to worse business metrics, that’s not a good way to grow the business, Jenn added.

“Be open to what the market is trying to tell you it needs,” Jenn said. “I know we think our ideas are the best ones but rooting them into customer feedback will help us continue growing and creating something better.”

Andy added that it’s important to be truthful with the data you are getting. “It’s so easy to just dismiss it,” he said. “And it’s so easy to twist data to twist your narrative.”

Many times that’s not even done on purpose, Andy said. “It just kind of creeps in.”

How do we know the roadmap is on the right way?

“I think it’s about getting to that next step where you can get some feedback,” Andy said. “We try to get things out to our customers’ hands to see it.”

Andy says he makes it a goal of getting the update to a 6 and not a 10 to get it out the door so that feedback can be gathered and the roadmap can be evaluated on a continuous basis.

“It compounds and compounds,” Andy said. “For me it’s about getting things into the hands of our customers.”

And as companies grow it does feel like your process is slowing down, but there are different expectations from customers once they have experienced your product, Andy said.

“The risk piece is a big challenge,” Jenn said. “Are we happy doing something 80 percent or 70 percent? As a smaller business you have a bit more freedom to do these things.”

“But bringing in the customer at every step can help you with that,” Andy said. “The risk isn’t about going to market. But it’s about where you could have been had you brought the customer in earlier.”

Getting customer feedback into your day-to-day

The trick now is to get the feedback process into your daily work.

“Many think of customer feedback as getting in the way,” Andy said. “At the start it feels like it’s something that’s difficult to do. But if you get into the habit of doing it at every stage I feel like it’s something you can do.”

Doing a study or getting feedback doesn’t really slow you down that much when the process is defined and part of the workflow.

Take a look at this Valentine’s Day love letter campaign, for example. We gathered feedback from 100 consumers for dozens of brands in just a few hours. The analysis was mostly automated. To review it took moments.

To get started, see what you are already doing and then start from there. It won’t take as long as you might think and it can help you be more customer-centric.


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