Book review: “Customers Included”

In the book “Customers Included”, Mark Hurst and Phil Terry make a great case for listening to the customer. In the book, Hurst and Terry look at why customers get overlooked by companies and explain how to best engage with customers:

  1. Why do customers get overlooked? – “The problem with customers is that they don’t always know what’s best for them” is a quote from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings referred to in the book. Similarly, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, warns that paying too much attention to today’s customers could lead a company to avoid the necessary step of disrupting itself to prepare for tomorrow’s market. These are commons reasons for why customers don’t always get involved or listened to when it comes to creating or improving products.
  2. Listening and disrupting can go hand in hand – Hurst and Terry argue that listening to customers isn’t as black and white as the likes of Hastings and Christensen portray it to to be. There’s room for nuance; accounting for different types of customers and different ways of listening to them. They make the point that “being disruptive requires knowing how to listen, in the right ways, to the right customers.” I totally agree that even in disruptive environments, it’s still essential to include the customer.” The point being that innovation should be focused on creating benefits for the customer, measuring innovation by its impact on the customer.
  3. Difference what people think and what they actually do – There’s typically a big difference between what people think (or say they think) and what they actually do. In my experience, this phenomenon raises its head particularly in focus groups, where people get together to give their feedback on a product. Hurst and Terry make the point that the very structure of a focus group fails to approximate real-world usage of a product, simply because having a number of people talking about a product doesn’t equal actual usage.
  4. The power of direct observations – The risk with research methods like focus groups is that customers give hypothetical answers, speculating about how they might behave, or how they could feel. I don’t find this feedback particularly helpful as it doesn’t give me a reliable indiction of how people actually behave or how they really feel. This is the key reason why Hurst and Terry advocate the use of direct observations; observing people in the appropriate environment, watching what they (don’t) do. For example, if you’re looking to learn more about people’s grocery shopping behaviours, you’re most likely to learn the most from observing people whilst they’re shopping at the supermarket.
  5. Doubts about personas – Hurst and Terry argue that “personas prioritise the hypothetical over the actual, and fiction over fact”. A user persona is a fictitious person with a fictitious profile. These aren’t real life people and I agree that if you do work with personas, you should always validate your made up user traits with real people. If you don’t do this validation, there’s a big risk of making product decisions solely based on hypothetical data.
  6. Limitations of task-based usability testing – Similar to the aforementioned point about personas, Hurst and Terry explain about the limitations of task-based usability testing (see Fig. 1 below). The overarching problem with only doing usability testing is that you might miss out on larger, more strategic insights. At is core, usability testing is tactical and helps to learn about how people use your product and identify any points of friction.
  7. Discovering unmet needs – “Unmet needs” are the antidote to the concept of “customers not knowing what they want” or “build it and they (customers) will come.” By just focusing on set usability tasks, Hurst and Terry argue, you’re unlikely to develop more strategic insights into your customers and their needs. To solve this, Hurst and Terry suggest direct observations and so-called “listening labs” as a better way of uncovering unmet needs.

Main learning point: “Customers Included” offers some good primers to use when convincing others of the importance of engaging with customers. More than that, the book also provides a ‘nuanced’ overview of the different user research methods to use, explaining pros and cons of each method.

Fig. 1 – Drawbacks of task-based usability testing – Taken from: Mark Hurst and Phil Terry, Customers Included, pp. 70-71

  1. The user tasks are all determined by the researchers beforehand
  2. The insights gained from the usability test are limited by those tasks
  3. The focus of task-based usability on tactical design elements

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