How to Self-Advocate for More Customer Face Time (and why it’s important) [transcript]

There are many stories of design successes attributed to the right level of understanding of the customer. Product designers make decisions, daily, about how a product is going to look and perform. So, we need to really understand the customer. And, to really get the customer, engineers need to spend time with them. Sometimes, the business doesn’t want us to interact with the customer or doesn’t think it would be valuable. Let’s talk about how we can prepare ourselves to self-advocate for more customer face time.

Hello and welcome to quality during design, the place to use quality thinking to create products others love, for less. My name is Dianna. I’m a senior level quality professional and engineer with over 20 years of experience in manufacturing and design. Listen in and then join the conversation at 

I always found talking with customers a valuable experience. I would talk to customers about risks of using a potential product, at conferences and trade shows, and would meet them in their place, where they would use a product. It’s important for product designers to get face time with customers. Time and again, it’s shown that understanding our customers gives us the insight we need to design FOR them. Instead of trying to design for a faceless subset of a population with some statistics that someone has given us, designing for customers that we’ve spent an hour or more with helps us really get into who we’re designing for and why. And, that helps us step from what the customer wants into what the customer needs, then we can step into the technical requirements that we mostly design against.

I’ve also moved forward with projects where marketing or field operations handed me a document. Maybe it was results from an off-site meeting, complete with a Kano model (that’s where we map product features against customer delight). Or, notes about customer wants versus customer needs. The information was certainly helpful. But it didn’t come even close to having that information AND getting a chance to sit at a roundtable with customers. Face time with customers is best.

When should we talk to customers? If we wait until we have a prototype, that’s too late. We want to talk to customers before our product design even hits the paper. Customers can tell us what they want. We need to talk with customers to figure out what they need. And, we have to do this before we start getting into any designs. We should also talk to customers throughout the design process. Maybe their involvement will taper off the farther into the design we get. So, developing a designing relationship with our customers would be a valuable thing to do.

We’ve now talked about why it’s important for design engineers to talk with customers. And, that we want to be able to talk with them routinely throughout product development. Our marketing and field operations departments have the contact list. How do we better prepare ourselves to talk with customers, and encourage our marketing departments to let us do so?

Other functions of the business have objections to inviting engineers to speak with customers, and a lot of it has to do with maintaining a positive business image. I’ve experienced them. And, I was reminded of some other objections while I was doing some reading. Is that fair to design engineers? No matter if it’s fair or not. We can prepare ourselves to address those objections.

One objection is that we’re ill-prepared for the customer’s environment. I had opportunities to speak with surgeons in their office, interviewing them to understand the risks of a product. It was a valuable exercise for the company, and the surgeon thought so, too. Then, for a different project, I was invited to talk to a different surgeon, again. Like before, I traded my steel-toed shoes and khaki pants for a nicer suit and dress shoes. When I showed up at work, the marketing manager that had set-up the site visit clicked her tongue, shook her head, sighed, and then chuckled. “This is why I don’t invite engineers to site visits.” This time, I was being invited into a surgical suite, and I was not dressed appropriately for that type of environment. Was it the marketing manager’s fault? No, it was my fault. I assumed what a site visit would mean based on my other project. I failed to get the details about the day so I could prepare myself appropriately.

So, we jump into a customer’s environment that is foreign to our environment, and don’t fit in well or are not prepared for it. This is why visiting customers is a valuable design tool! This objection by other departments is also easy to address: we ask in advance what type of site it is to understand if there are any safety measures or dress codes that we need to account for. Understanding the customer’s environment is one aspect. Understanding how we’re being invited into someone else’s space is another. Asking in advance is being responsible for ourselves. It’s not showing that we don’t understand them. It’s a sign that we respect them.

Another objection is that engineers are too blunt or honest with customers. This is not my story, but I think it’s a good one. A customer was trying a nearly completed design. They were given the product and the instructions and were being asked to use it in their environment, where they work. The design team was meant to observe, only. The customers were having troubles using the product. The engineer that was invited to observe got frustrated watching the customer try to fiddle with the product, so he intervened and said, “You’re using it wrong! You’re supposed to do it THIS way!” Was it really that the customer was using it wrong? Or, was it that the engineer designed the wrong thing? The product wasn’t intuitive to use, which is a design problem. The engineer was more worried about it being technically right, and less concerned about how the customer used it and what they thought about it. This outburst of the engineer was damaging to the business-customer relationship. And it also ruined a validation study.

What can we do about this objection: that we’re too blunt or honest with customers? First, we’re clear about the objective of this meeting. Then we show up as part of the plan for the meeting. We make sure we have a role to play in the meeting, we’re not just a tag-a-long. It’s alright to take marketing’s lead, and to let them know that we’re taking their lead. After all, its marketing, sales, or field ops that are the ones that have built a relationship with a customer. It makes sense that they’d want to protect that relationship. So, we’ll show up, but we’re okay with taking a back seat and to not control the meeting. We do want to make sure that we gain the knowledge and customer’s perspective that we need, so we don’t want to leave with unanswered questions. We take notes, we jot down questions, and we check-in with the meeting facilitator (namely the marketing person).

At these meetings, the customer is always right. It’s an old saying, but it directly applies in this situation. There’s no sense to argue with the customer over how they like to do things, or how they understand or expect their world and environment to work. We might learn something that makes our design job difficult or inconvenient, but that’s not the customer’s fault. We’re providing a service to the customer by designing a product for them to use. They’re taking time out of their day to help us learn how we can be of better service to them.

Now we’re prepared for the environment, we have a role in the meeting, and we’re approaching it as “the customer is always right”. We attend the meeting and walk away with new found insight into our customers. There’s another hurdle we need to address, and that is the complaint that engineers overgeneralize. I think this just comes with how we think: we’ve learned something, so now how can we use it? To prevent the overgeneralization, we can depend on our marketing people to help. After we’ve met with the customer, we meet with our team (including marketing) as soon as we can. We download what we’ve learned and share our take-aways with the rest of our team after meeting with the customer. This gives the entire team (including marketing) a chance to get on the same page with respect to the product design.

The last objection to engineers talking with customers has to do with the cost of doing so. Managers may say, “We have a marketing team doing market research. Why do we need to send engineers away from the design house, and pay for their travel?” This kind of objection can only be won-over with management’s understanding of the value of designers talking directly with customers. We may need to present a value-proposition. We can go back to the plan for the meeting, and its objectives. And involving management in the download meetings, where we’re sharing notes and making decisions about the design, will demonstrate the value of designers talking with customers. It might cost a little to send an engineer to talk with a customer. It costs a whole lot more to redesign a nearly-finished prototype because we didn’t get the customer needs correct.

What is today’s insight to action?

All that’s left to do is to prepare ourselves to talk with customers, and then self-advocate and volunteer for customer-facing opportunities. We can prepare for the environment by asking questions to understand how we’re being invited into someone else’s space: do we need to prepare anything special, or wear certain protective gear? We know to get involved in the meeting planning and to understand our role in the meeting and its objective. Our approach is of service to the customer, that the customer is always right. And, we’ll make sure we have a download meeting with our team and management, even if we need to be the ones to set it up.

Input from the customer is so important to successful design. This might go beyond what we’re doing now, but it’s shown time and again and published in many sources: designers design better products when they’ve had face-time with customers. It’s a technique that us and our counterparts just need to get comfortable with doing.

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