Developing Customer Insights

by Sep 17, 2021

If you’ve been following our series on putting customers at the center of your business, you know that getting out and talking to customers is critical to understanding their true needs and mitigating startup risk. Once you’ve developed customer empathy, you can ensure that your product meets their real needs better than anyone else’s product. You’ll be on the path to finding product-market fit and startup success! But first, you have to turn raw feedback into actionable customer insights.

So let’s say you’ve done the work interviewing customers. You’ve engaged, observed, and immersed yourself in their world to understand their pain points and needs. Now what? How do you make sense of the overwhelming amount of information you’ve gathered? It’s time to unpack your notes, look for patterns, and make sense of the stories you’ve heard. Once you draw out insights, you can identify opportunities and set a course for moving your business forward.

Unpacking Interviews

The process of unpacking interviews into customer insights requires paying careful attention as you revisit the conversations, capturing important data, and then sorting those observations into patterns.

Tools to help you record and organize your findings:

  • Post-it notes
  • Highlighters
  • Whiteboards
  • Online whiteboarding and user story mapping tools (such as Miro)
  • Automated transcription of audio files (such as

What to listen and look for each interview:

  • Surprises—What did you learn that was unexpected?
  • Contradictions—Is there a disconnect between what the person said and did?
  • Beliefs—What does this person value or believe to be true?
  • Feelings—What does this person feel? If you were able to gauge their body language, what did that reveal?

Jot down findings as you revisit each interview, using something like post-it notes (old school paper or online, as you prefer) to note important points. Once you’ve analyzed each interview individually, you can step back and look for patterns across all of them. Sort and cluster your post-its with similar stories and themes. At this point, it may help to give each recurring theme a name (for example, “user access needs more levels” or “implementation obstacles”), to clarify what you’re discovering.

Turning Nuggets Into Customer Insights

Next, identify the most interesting observations you’ve made (whether they’re part of an identified theme or not), and start to make inferences about what each observation means.

You can think about it in terms of nuggets and insights. Nuggets are observations: the concrete, specific things you observed and heard during your interviews. An insight is an explanation that, if true, would explain the nugget. Insights cannot be proven. They are leaps of interpretation. Customer insights are pivotal in understanding an unmet need, literally: they pivot your thinking and point you in a new direction. Bottom line? An insight is good if it’s useful. Typically, an insight sparks ideas, reframes thinking, and provides leverage. Insights often feel like “A-ha!” moments, leading you to think, “I’d never thought of it that way before.”

How do you distill an insight?

1. Make an observation—Notice something (find a nugget!), and define why it’s interesting

2. Infer something—”I wonder if this means…” (about behavior, belief, structure)

3. Gain an insight—Pinpoint what you should do if that inference is true

Taking Action

We’ll say it again: insights are actionable. Insights cause you to pivot as a result of learning something new about customers. Insights are testable. Customer says A; you wonder if it’s because B; if B is true, you should do C to better meet the customer’s needs. When you do C, you discover whether you were right about B.

Here’s a historical example of this distilling process:

1. Observation — When describing the current state of travel, people often complain about how slow and unreliable horses are.

2. Inference — I wonder if that means people are desperate for a safer, quicker, and more reliable means of transportation.

3. Insight—If this true, then we have an opportunity to design and build a form of transportation that doesn’t rely on horsepower or even owning a horse.

By definition, insights are imaginative. Listen, learn, then leap! Then check: were you right about what that nugget meant? Did customers commit more deeply to your product as a result of your leap? In other words, did customers validate your insight and your product?

Next in this series, we’ll look at another way to validate your product and mitigate risk: by developing a customer profile.