Why it is hard to understand customer needs, and how to do it faster

Understanding customers is hard because we can’t make sense of what they’re saying.

We learn about our customers through several interactions every day:

  • We speak with them directly
  • We interact with them on social media
  • We get their feedback through — emails, communities, forums, etc.
  • We get responses to our marketing
  • We read all sort of research and articles from other people

The list goes on.

We have all the information we need to really understand their needs, but we just don’t know how to make sense of it.

We’re overloaded with information, it’s difficult to act on. It’s hard because most of this data is qualitative, and it’s really time-consuming to find patterns in qualitative data.

We overcome this by doing quantitative research — like surveys and analytics. The problem is, quantitative data can only tell you what’s happening — it can’t help explain why things are happening the way they are.

It’s easy to say we got 10 customers this week, but really hard to answer why did we get only 10?


Finding common themes in customers' behavior takes a lot of time.

To solve this problem, we looked for ways to simplify making sense of qualitative data. And we found our answer in social sciences — they heavily rely on qualitative data.

You’ve got to chunk it, mix it — and repeat.

They employ a technique called “Thematic Analysis”. It’s really ingenious but super laborious.

The idea is — you’ve got to break the observations in the qualitative data you gather from different sources into small chunks, and look for similar chunks across all the data you’ve gathered.

When you find things that fit together — you realize why they do.

This is essentially what is being done in every design thinking or UX workshop where people put their thoughts on a sticky note (“chunks their observations”) and organize them on user journey maps, personas, etc (“mix them up”).

What they’re doing is — categorizing all the qualitative observations that they have made as a team in a way to be able to act on them.

So we act on leaps of faith and hope for the best.

However all these sticky notes get lost — and no one outside of the room gets what the team figured out together. It becomes a battle of “alignment”, relies heavily on the company’s “culture” — to make people believe that they should act on what was discussed in the room.

It doesn’t have to be that way. User insights are not make-believe, they come from somewhere — yet they feel like opinions or conjecture because there’s no good way to communicate them to everyone else.


The four steps to understanding customer needs faster.

Every conversation we have with a customer or prospect is an incredible opportunity to learn about them. People always share their problems, we just don’t listen very carefully. To make sure we listen better, we just need to start taking notes.

By taking notes you take time away from thinking about what you want to say, and spend it on absorbing the information.

If you make notes while reading and listening, you’re going to be able to identify things that make sense in your world view and things that don’t.

It’s the things that don’t which reshape our understanding and help us learn.

So you should look out for observations that don’t connect with everything else you know about your customers. They’re the key to better understanding their needs.

Even with the observations you’ve already made — it’s likely that you don’t know everything there is to know. By sharing your insights, you’re able to open them up to other people’s observations as well. And they’ll tell you things they have observed, that you may have missed out upon.

They’re not disagreements or differences in opinion, they’re just unresolved observations in your understanding of the world. Use them to sharpen your own insights, and eventually, things start making sense.

What you learn from your customers is only as good as how quickly you can act on those learnings. So make some predictions about what should happen if you act based on your insights — and see if they actually do.

If they don’t, you now have a whole new set of observations to sharpen your understanding. And the great part about your insights is that they keep getting better the more you learn about something.


We’ve got notes from our user interviews from over 12 months ago — which made no sense to us at the time, we dismissed them as anomalies that we could address later.

Turns out, we had to figure out what they meant — to identify a problem worth solving. The one that we ended up working on.

If you want to keep track of what you learn from your customers and make sure your understanding and insights keep getting better — we’ve been building just the thing for you.


Epiphany is a collaborative discovery platform for product teams. It helps analyze qualitative data from user research, to find customer insights that can drive the product roadmap.

You can use it to take notes, categorize your observations, share your insights with the world and validate them with data.

We’re really excited to share that — after months of interviewing, experimenting, and pivoting — we’re going to onboard up to 1000 more users to our free beta, we’ve built it with loads of love, hope you guys will find it as useful.

If not, we promise to keep learning and better understand your needs. Let us know if you’re interested in joining by requesting access.

Source: UX Planet